23 March 1875
Today is my birthday, and I have received the greatest gift of all—freedom! I make these first poor scribblings aboard the westbound Union Pacific train which departed Union Station Chicago at 6:35 a.m. this morning, bound for Nebraska Territory. We are told that it will be a fourteen-day trip with many stops along the way, and with a change of trains in Omaha. Although our final destination was intended to have been concealed from us, I have ascertained from overhearing conversations among our military escort (they underestimate a woman’s auditory powers) that we are being taken first to Fort Sidney aboard the train—from there transported by wagon train to Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, and then on to Camp Robinson, Nebraska Territory.
How strange is life. To think that I would find myself on this train, embarking upon this long journey, watching the city retreating behind me. I sit facing backwards on the train in order to have a last glimpse of Chicago, the layer of dense black coal smoke that daily creeps out over the beach of Lake Michigan like a giant parasol, the muddy, bustling city passing by me for the last time. How I have missed this loud, raucous city since my dark and silent incarceration. And now I feel like a character in a theater play, torn from the real world, acting out some terrible and as yet unwritten role. How I envy these people I watch from the train window, hurrying off to the safety of their daily travails while we are borne off, captives of fate into the great unknown void.
Now we pass the new shanties that ring the city, that have sprung up everywhere since the great fire of’71. Little more than cobbled-together scraps of lumber they teeter in the wind like houses of cards, to form a kind of rickety fence around the perimeters of Chicago—as if somehow trying to contain the sprawling metropolis. Filthy half-dressed children play in muddy yards and stare blankly at us as we pass, as if we, or perhaps they, are creatures from some other world. How I long for my own dear children! What I would give to see them one last time, to hold them … now I press my hand against the train window to wave to one tiny child who reminds me somehow of my own sweet son William, but this poor child’s hair is fair and greasy, hanging in dirty ringlets around his mud-streaked face. His eyes are intensely blue and he raises his tiny hand tentatively as we pass to return my greeting … I should say my farewell … I watch him growing smaller and smaller and then we leave these last poor outposts behind as the eastern sun illuminates the retreating city—the stage fades smaller and smaller into the distance. I watch as long as I can and only then do I finally gain the courage to change seats, to give up my dark and troubled past and turn around to face an uncertain and terrifying future. And when I do so the breath catches in my throat at the immensity of earth that lies before us, the prairie unspeakable in its vast, lonely reaches. Dizzy and faint at the sight of it, I feel as if the air has been sucked from my lungs, as if I have fallen off the edge of the world, and am hurtling headlong through empty space. And perhaps I have … perhaps I am …
But dear God, forgive me, I shall never again utter a complaint, I shall always remind myself how wonderful it is to be free, how I prayed for this moment every day of my life, and my prayers are answered! The terror in my heart of what lies ahead seems of little consequence compared with the prospect of spending my lifetime as an “inmate” in that loathsome “prison”—for it was a prison far more than a hospital, we were prisoners rather than patients. Our “medical treatment” consisted of being held captive behind iron bars, like animals in the zoo, ignored by indifferent doctors, tortured, taunted, and assaulted by sadistic attendants.
My definition of LUNATIC ASYLUM: A place where lunatics are created.
“Why am I here?” I asked Dr. Kaiser, when he first came to see me, fully a fortnight after my “admittance.”
“Why, due to your promiscuous behavior,” he answered as if genuinely surprised that I dare to even pose such a query.
“But I am in love!” I protested, and then I told him about Harry Ames. “My family placed me here because I left home to live out of wedlock with a man whom they considered to be beneath my station. For no better reason than that. When they could not convince me to leave him, they tore me from him, and from my babies. Can you not see, Doctor, that I’m no more insane than you?”
Then the doctor raised his eyebrows and scribbled on his notepad, nodding with an infuriating air of sanctimony. “Ah,” he said, “I see—you believe that you were sent here as part of a conspiracy among your family.” And he rose and left me and I did not see him again for nearly six months.
During this initial period I was subject to excruciating “treatments” prescribed by the good doctor to cure me of my “illness.” These consisted of daily injections of scalding water into my vagina—evidently intended to calm my deranged sexual desires. At the same time, I was confined to my bed for weeks on end—forbidden from fraternizing with the other patients, not allowed to read, write letters, or pursue any other diversion. The nurses and attendants did not speak to me, as if I did not exist. I endured the further humiliation of being forced to use a bedpan, although there was nothing whatsoever physically wrong with me. Were I to protest or if I was found by a nurse out of my bed, I would be strapped into it for the remainder of the day and night.
It was during this period of confinement that I truly lost my mind. If the daily torture weren’t enough, the complete isolation and inactivity were in themselves insupportable. I longed for fresh air and exercise, to promenade along Lake Michigan as I once had … At great risk I would steal from my bed before dawn and stand on a chair in my room, straining to see out through the iron bars that covered the tiny shaded window—just to catch one glimpse of daylight, one patch of green grass on the lawn outside. I wept bitterly at my fate, but I struggled against the tears, willed them away. For I had also learned that I must not allow anyone on staff to see me weep, lest it be said in addition to the doctor’s absurd diagnosis of promiscuity, that I was also victim of Hysteria or Melancholia … which would only be cause for further tortures.
Let me here set down, once and for ever, the true circumstances of my incarceration.
Four years ago I fell in love with a man named Harry Ames. Harry was several years my senior and foreman of Father’s grain-elevator operations. We met at my parents’ home, where Harry came regularly to consult with Father on business matters. Harry is a very attractive man, if somewhat rough around the edges, with strong masculine arms and a certain workingman’s self-confidence. He was nothing like the insipid, privileged boys with whom girls of my station are reduced to socializing at tea and cotillion. Indeed, I was quite swept away by Harry’s charms … one thing led to another … yes well, surely by the standards of some I might be called promiscuous.
I am not ashamed to admit that I have always been a woman of passionate emotions and powerful physical desires. I do not deny them. I came to full flower at an early age, and had always quite intimidated the awkward young men of my family’s narrow social circle.
Harry was different. He was a man; I was drawn to him like a moth to flame. We began to see each other secretly. Both of us knew that Father would never condone our relationship and Harry was as anxious about being found out as I—for he knew that it would cost him his job. But we could not resist one another—we could not stay apart.
The very first time I lay with Harry I became with child—my daughter Hortense. Truly, I felt her burst into being in my womb in the consummation of our love. I must say, Harry behaved like a gentleman, and assumed full responsibility. He offered to marry me, which I flatly refused, for although I loved him, and still do, I am an independent, some might say, an unconventional woman. I was not prepared to marry. I would not, however, give up my child, and so without explanation I moved out of my parents’ home and took up residence with my beloved in a shabby little house on the banks of the Chicago River, where we lived very simply and happily for a time.
Naturally, it was not long before Father learned about his foreman’s deception, and promptly dismissed him. But Harry soon found work with one of Father’s competitors and I, too, found employment. I went to work in a factory that processed prairie chickens for the Chicago market. It was filthy, exhausting work, for which my privileged upbringing had in no way prepared me. At the same time, and perhaps for the same reason, it was oddly liberating to be out in the real world, and making my own way there.
I gave birth to Hortense and almost immediately became pregnant again with my son William … sweet Willie. I tried to maintain contact with my parents—I wished them to know their grandchildren, and not to judge me too harshly for having chosen a different path for myself. But Mother was largely hysterical whenever I arranged to visit her—indeed. it is she, perhaps, who should have been institutionalized, not I—and Father was inflexible and refused to even see me when I came to the house. I finally stopped going there altogether, and kept up only a tenuous contact with the family through my older married sister, also named Hortense.
By the time I gave birth to Willie, Harry and I had begun to have some difficulties. I wonder now if Father’s agents were already working on him, even then, for he seemed to change almost overnight, to become distant and remote. He began to drink and to stay out all night, and when he came home I could smell the other women on him. It broke my heart, for I still loved him. Still, I was more than ever glad that I had not married him.
It was on one such night when Harry was away that Father’s blackguards came. They burst through the door of our house in the middle of the night accompanied by a nurse, who snatched up my babies and spirited them away as the men restrained me. I fought them for all I was worth—screaming, kicking, biting, and scratching, but, of course, to no avail. I have not seen my children since that dark night.
I was taken directly to the lunatic asylum, where I was consigned to lie in bed in my darkened room, day after day, week after week, month after month, with nothing to occupy my time but my daily torture and constant thoughts of my babies—I had no doubt they were living with Father and Mother. I did not know what had become of Harry and was haunted by thoughts of him … (Harry, my Harry, love of my life, father of my children, did Father reward you with pieces of gold to give me up to his ruffians in the middle of the night? Did you sell your own babies to him? Or did he simply have you murdered? Perhaps I shall never know the truth … )
All of my misery for the crime of falling in love with a common man. All of my heartbreak, torture, and punishment because I chose to bring you, my dearest children, into the world. All of my black and hopeless despair because I chose an unconventional life …
Ah, but surely nothing that has come before can be considered unconventional in light of where I am now going! Let me record the exact events that led me to be on this train: Two weeks ago, a man and a woman came into the ladies dayroom at the asylum. Owing to the nature of my “affliction” —my “moral perversion,” as it was described in my commitment papers (a sham and a travesty—how many other women I wonder have been locked away like this for no just cause!), I was among those patients strictly segregated by gender, prohibited even from fraternizing with members of the opposite sex—presumably for fear that I might try to copulate with them. Good God! On the other hand, my diagnosis seemed to be considered an open invitation to certain male members of the asylum staff to visit my room in the middle of the night. How many times did I wake up, as if suffocating, with the weight of one particularly loathsome attendant named Franz pressed upon me, a fat stinking German, corpulent and sweating … God help me, I prayed to kill him.
The man and woman looked us over appraisingly as if we were cattle auction, and then they chose six or seven among us to come with them to a private staff room. Conspicuously absent from this group were any of the older women or any of the hopelessly, irredeemably insane—those who sit rocking and moaning for hours on end, or who weep incessantly or hold querulous conversations with their demons. No, these poor afflicted were passed over and the more “presentable” of us lunatics chosen for an audience with our visitors.
After we had retired to the private staff room, the gentleman, a Mr. Benton, explained that he was interviewing potential recruits for a government program that involved the Indians of the Western plains. The woman, who he introduced as Nurse Crowley, would, with our consent, perform a physical examination upon us. Should we be judged, based on the interview and examination, to be suitable candidates for the program, we might be eligible for immediate release from this hospital. Yes! Naturally, I was intrigued by the proposal. Yet there was a further condition of family consent, which I had scant hope of ever obtaining.
Still I volunteered my full cooperation. Truly, even an interview and a physical examination seemed preferable to the endless hours of agonizing monotony spent sitting or lying in bed, with nothing to pass the time besides foreboding thoughts about the injustice of my sentence and the devastating loss of my babies—the utter hopelessness of my situation and the awful anticipation of my next “treatment.”
“Did I have any reason to believe that I was not fruitful?”—this was the first question posed to me by Nurse Crowley at the beginning of her examination. I must say I was taken aback—but I answered promptly, already having set my mind to passing this test, whatever its purpose. “Au contraire!” I said, and I told the nurse of the two precious children I had already borne out of wedlock, the son and daughter, who were so cruelly torn from their mother’s bosom.
“Indeed,” I said, “so fruitful am I that if my beloved Harry Ames, Esq., simply gazed upon me with a certain romantic longing in his eyes, babes sprang from my loins like seed spilling from a grain sack!”
(I must mention the unmentionable: the sole reason I did not become with child by the repulsive attendant Franz, the monster who visited me by night, is that the pathetic cretin sprayed his revolting discharge on my bedcovers, humping and moaning and weeping bitterly in his premature agonies.)
I feared that I may have gone too far in my enthusiasm to impress Nurse Crowley with my fertility, for she looked at me with that tedious and by now all too familiar expression of guardedness with which people regard the insane—and the alleged insane alike—as if our maladies might be contagious.
But apparently I passed my initial examination, for next I was interviewed by Mr. Benton himself, who also asked me a series of distinctly queer questions: Did I know how to cook over a campfire? Did I enjoy spending time outdoors? Did I enjoy sleeping out overnight? What was my personal estimation of the western savage?
“The western savage?” I interrupted. “Having never met any western savages, Sir, it would be difficult for me to have formed any estimation of them one way or another.”
Finally Mr. Benton got down to the business at hand: “Would you be willing to make a great personal sacrifice in the service of your government?” he asked.
“But of course,” I answered without hesitation.
“Would you consider an arranged marriage to a western savage for the express purpose of bearing a child with him?”
“Hah!” I barked a laugh of utter astonishment. “But why on earth?” I asked, more curious than offended. “For what purpose?”
“To ensure a lasting peace on the Great Plains,” Mr. Benton answered. “To provide safe passage to our courageous settlers from the constant depredations of the bloodthirsty barbarians.”
“I see,” I said, but of course, I did not altogether.
“As part of our agreement,” added Mr. Benton, “your President will demonstrate his eternal gratitude to you by arranging for your immediate release from this institution.”
“Truly? I would be released from this place?” I asked, trying to conceal the trembling in my voice.
“That is absolutely guaranteed,” he said, “assuming that your legal guardian, if such exists, is willing to sign the necessary consent forms.”
Already I was formulating my plan for this last major hurdle to my freedom, and again I answered without a moment’s hesitation. I stood and curtsied deeply, weak in the knees, both from my months of idle confinement and pure excitement at the prospect of freedom: “I should be deeply honored, Sir, to perform this noble duty for my country,” I said, “to offer my humble services to the President of the United States.” The truth is that I would have gladly signed on for a trip to Hell to escape the lunatic asylum … and, yet, perhaps that is exactly what I have done …
As to the critical matter of obtaining my parents’ consent, let me say in preface, that although I may have been accused of insanity and promiscuity, no one has ever taken me for an idiot.
It was the responsibility of the hospital’s chief physician, my own preposterous diagnostician, Dr. Sidney Kaiser, to notify the families of those patients under consideration for the BFI program (these initials stand for “Brides for Indians” as Mr. Benton explained to us) and invite them to the hospital to be informed of the program and to obtain their signatures on the necessary release papers—at which time the patients would be free to participate in the program if they so chose. In the year and a half that I had been incarcerated there against my will, I had, as I may have mentioned, been visited only twice by the good doctor. However, through my repeated but futile efforts to obtain an audience with him, I had become acquainted with his assistant, Martha Atwood, a fine woman who took pity on me, who befriended me. Indeed, Martha became my sole friend and confidante in that wretched place. Without her sympathy and visits, and the many small kindnesses she bestowed upon me, I do not know how I could have survived.
As we came to know one another, Martha was more than ever convinced that I did not belong in the asylum, that I was no more insane than she, and that, like other women there, I had been committed unjustly by my family. When this opportunity presented itself for me to “escape,” she agreed to help me in my desperate plan. First she “borrowed” correspondence from Father out of my file in Dr. Kaiser’s office, and she had made a duplicate of his personal letterhead. Together we forged a letter in Father’s hand, written to Dr. Kaiser, in which Father explained that he was traveling on business and would be unable to attend the proposed meeting at the institution. Dr. Kaiser would have no reason to question this; he was aware of Father’s position as president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, for which Father had designed and built the entire grain-elevator system—the largest and most advanced such warehouse in the city, as he is forever reminding us. Father’s job involved nearly constant travel, and as a child I rarely saw him. In our forged letter to Dr. Kaiser, Martha and I, or I should say “Father,” wrote that the family had recently been contacted directly by the government regarding my participation in the BFI program and that Agent Benton had personally guaranteed him my safety for the duration of my stay in Indian territory. Because Martha had been privy to the entire interview process, I knew that I had passed all the necessary requirements and had been judged to be a prime candidate for the program (not that this represents any great accomplishment on my part considering that the main criterion for acceptance was that one be of child-bearing age and condition, and not so insane as to be incapacitated. It is, I believe, safe to say that the government was less interested in the success of these matrimonial unions than they were in meeting their quota— something that Father, ever the businessman and pragmatist could appreciate).
Thus in our letter, Father gave his full blessing for me to participate in, as I believe we wrote “this exciting and high-minded plan to assimilate the heathens.” I know that Father has always viewed the western savages primarily as an impediment to the growth of American agriculture—he detests the notion of all that fertile plain going to waste when it could be put to good Biblical use filling his grain elevators. The truth is, Father harbors a deep-seated hatred of the Red Man simply for being a poor businessman—a shortcoming which Father believes to be the most serious character flaw of all. At his and Mother’s endless dinner parties he is fond of giving credit to his and his wealthy guests’ great good fortunes by toasting the Sac Chief Black Hawk, who once said that “land cannot be sold. Nothing can be sold but for those things that can be carried away”—a notion that Father found enormously quaint and amusing.
Too—and I must acknowledge this fact—I believe that secretly Father might actually have appreciated this opportunity to be rid of me, of the shame that my behavior, my “condition” has brought on our family. For if the truth be known, Father is a terrible snob. In his circle of friends and business cronies the stigma of having a lunatic—or, even worse, a sexually promiscuous daughter—must have been nearly unbearable for him.
So he went on in his letter, in his typically overblown but distracted manner—in the same tone he might employ if he were giving permission for me to be sent off to finishing school for young ladies (perhaps it is simply due to the fact that the same blood flows through our veins, but it was almost diabolically simple for me to imitate Father’s writing style)—to state his conviction that the “bracing Western air, the hearty native life in the glorious out-of-doors, and the fascinating cultural exchange might be just what my poor wayward daughter requires to set her addled mind right again.” It is an astonishing thing, is it not, the notion of a father being asked (and giving!) permission for his daughter to copulate with savages?
Enclosed with Father’s letter were the signed hospital release papers, all of which Martha had delivered by private messenger to Dr. Kaiser’s office—a tidy and ultimately perfectly convincing little package.
Of course, when her part in the deception was discovered, as it surely would be, Martha knew that she faced immediate dismissal—possibly even criminal prosecution. And thus it is, that my true, intrepid friend—childless and loveless (and if the truth be told rather plain to look upon), facing in all probability a life of spinsterhood and loneliness—enlisted in the BFI program herself. She rides beside me on this very train … and so at least I do not embark alone on this greatest adventure of my life.
27 March 1875
My Dearest Sister Hortense,
You have by this time perhaps heard news of my sudden departure from Chicago. My sole regret is that I was unable to be present when the family was notified of the circumstances of my “escape” from the “prison” from which you had all conspired to commit me. I would especially have enjoyed seeing Father’s reaction when he learned that I am soon to become a bride—yes, that’s right, I am to wed, and perforce, couple with a genuine Savage of the Cheyenne Nation!—Hah! Speaking of moral perversion. I can just hear Father blustering: “My God, she really is insane!” What I would give to see his face!
Now, truly, haven’t you always known that your poor wayward little sister would one day embark on such an adventure, perform such a momentous deed? Imagine me, if you are able, riding this rumbling train west into the great unknown void of the frontier. Can you picture two more different lives than ours? You within the snug (though how dreary it must be!) confines of the Chicago bourgeoisie, married to your pale banker Walter Woods, with your brood of pale offspring—how many are there now, I lose track, four, five, six of the little monsters?—each as colorless and shapeless as unkneaded bread dough.
But forgive me, my sister, if I appear to be attacking you. It is only that I may now, at last—freely and without censor or fear of recriminations— voice my anger to those among my own family who so ill-treated me; I can speak my mind without the constant worry of further confirming my insanity, without the ever-present danger that my children will be torn from me forever—for all this has come to pass, and I have nothing left to lose. At last I am free—in body, mind, and spirit … or as free as one can be who has purchased her freedom with her womb …
But enough of that … now I must tell you something of my adventure, of our long journey, of the extraordinary country I am seeing. I must tell you of all that is fascinating and lonely and desolate … you who have barely set foot outside Chicago, can simply not imagine it all. The city is bursting at its very seams, abustle with rebuilding out of the ashes of the devastating great fire, expanding like a living organism out into the prairie (well, is it any wonder then that the savages rebel as they are pushed ever further west?). You cannot imagine the crowds, the human congress, the sheer activity on what used to be wild prairie when we were children. Our train passed through the new stockyard district—very near the neighborhood where Harry and I lived. (You never did come to visit us, did you, Hortense? … Why does that not surprise me?) There the smokestacks spew clouds of all colors of the rainbow—blue and orange and red—which when they enter the air seem to intermingle like oil paints mixed on a palette. It is quite beautiful in a grotesque sort of way, like the paintings of a mad god. Past the slaughterhouses, where the terrified cries of dumb beasts can be heard even over the steady din of the train, their sickening stench filling the car like rancid syrup. Finally the train burst from the shroud of smoke that blankets the city, as though it had come out of a dense fog into the clear-plowed farm country, the freshly turned soil black and rich, Father’s beloved grain crops just beginning to break ground.
I must tell you that in spite of Father’s insistence to the contrary, the true beauty of the prairie lies not in the perfect symmetry of farmlands, but where the farmlands end and the real prairie begins—a sea of natural grass like a living, breathing thing undulating all the way to the horizon. Today I saw prairie chickens, flocks of what must have been hundreds, thousands, flushing away in clouds from the tracks as we passed. I could only imagine the sound of their wings over the roar of the train. How extraordinary to see them on the wing like this after the year I spent laboring in that wretched factory where we processed the birds and where I thought I could never bear to look at another chicken as long as I lived. I know that you and the rest of the family could not understand my decision to take such menial work or to live out of wedlock with a man so far beneath my station in life, and that this has always been spoken of among you as the first outward manifestation of my insanity. But, don’t you see, Hortense, it was precisely our cloistered upbringing under Mother and Father’s roof that spurred me to seek contact with a larger world. I’d have suffocated, died of sheer boredom, if I stayed any longer in that dark and dreary house, and although the work I took in the factory was indeed loathsome, I will never regret having done it. I learned so much from the men and women with whom I toiled; I learned how the rest of the world—families less fortunate than ours, which, of course constitutes the vast majority of people—lives. This is something you can never know, dear sister, and which you will always be poorer in soul for having missed.
Not that I recommend to you a job in the chicken factory! Good God, I shall never get over the stink of it, my hands even now when I hold them up to my face seem to reek of chicken blood, feathers, and innards … I think that I shall never eat poultry again as long as I live! But I must say my interest in the birds is somewhat renewed in seeing the wild creatures flying up before the train like sparks from the wheels. They are so beautiful, fanning off against the setting sun, their tangents helping to break the long straight tedium of this journey. I have tried to interest my friend Martha, who sits beside me, in this spectacle of wings, but she is very soundly asleep, her head jostling gently against the train window.
But here has occurred an amusing encounter: As I was watching the birds flush from the tracks, a tall, angular, very pale woman with short-cropped sandy hair under an English tweed cap came hurrying down the aisle of our car, stooping to look out each window at the birds and then moving on to the next seat. She wears a man’s knickerbocker suit of Irish thornproof, in which, with her short hair and cap it might be easy to mistake her for a member of the opposite sex. Her mannish outfit includes a waistcoat, stockings, and heavy walking brogues, and she carries an artist’s sketch pad.
“Excuse me, please, won’t you?” the woman asked of each occupant of each seat in front of which she leaned in order to improve her view out the window. She spoke with a distinct British accent. “Do please excuse me. Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed, her eyebrows raised in an expression of delighted surprise. “Extraordinary! Magnificent! Glorious!”
By the time the Englishwoman reached the unoccupied seat beside me the prairie chickens had set their wings and sailed off over the horizon and she flopped down in the seat all gangly arms and legs. “Greater prairie chicken,” she said. “That is to say, Tympanuchus cupido, actually a member of the grouse family, commonly referred to as the prairie chicken. The first I’ve ever seen in the wilds, although, of course, I’ve seen specimens. And of course I have studied extensively the species’ eastern cousin, the heath hen, during my travels about New England. Named after the Greek tympananon, ‘kettledrum,’ and‘echein,’ to have a drum, aluding both to the enlarged esophagus on the sides of the throat, which in the male becomes inflated during courtship, as well as to the booming sound which the males utter in their aroused state. And further named after the ‘blind bow boy,’ son of Venus—not, however with any illusion to erotic concerns, I should hasten to add, but because the long, erectile, stiff feathers are raised like small rounded wings over the head of the male in his courtship display, and have therefore been likened to Cupid’s wings.”
Now the woman suddenly turned as if noticing me for the first time, and with the same look of perpetual surprise still etched in her milk-pale English countenance—eyebrows raised and a delighted smile at her lips as if the world itself were not only wonderful, but absolutely startling. I liked her immediately. “Do please excuse me for prattling on, won’t you? Helen Elizabeth Flight, here,” she said, thrusting her hand forward with manly forthrightness. “Perhaps you’re familiar with my work? My book Birds of Britain is currently in its third printing—letterpress provided by my dear companion and collaborator, Mrs. Ann Hall of Sunderland. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hall was too ill to accompany me when I embarked on my tour of America to gather specimens and make sketches for our next opus, Birds of America—not to be confused, of course, with Monsieur Audubon’s series of the same name. An interesting artist, Mr. Audubon, if rather too fanciful for my tastes. I’ve always found his birds to be rendered with such … caprice! Clearly he threw biological accuracy to the wind. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I could see that this question was intended to be somewhat more than rhetorical, but just as I was attempting to form an answer, Miss Flight asked: “And you are?” still looking at me with her eyebrows raised in astonished anticipation, as if my identity were not only a matter of the utmost urgency but also promised a great surprise.
“May Dodd,” I answered.
“Ah, May Dodd! Quite,” she said. “And a smart little picture of a girl you are, too. I suspected from your fair complexion that you might be of English descent.”
“Scottish actually,” I said, “but I’m thoroughly American, myself. I was born and raised in Chicago,” I added somewhat wistfully.
“And don’t tell me that a lovely creature like you has signed up to live with the savages?” asked Miss Flight.
“Why yes I have,” I said. “And you?”
“I’m afraid that I’ve run a trifle short of research funds,” explained Miss Flight with a small grimace of distaste for the subject. “My patrons were unwilling to advance me any more money for my American sojourn, and this seemed like quite the perfect opportunity for me to study the birdlife of the western prairies at no additional expense. A frightfully exciting adventure, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” I said, with a laugh, “frightfully!”
“Although I must tell you a little secret,” she said, looking around us to see that we were not overheard. “I am unable to have children myself. I’m quite sterile! The result of a childhood infection.” Her eyebrows shot up with delight. “I lied to the examiner in order to be accepted into the program !
“Now you will excuse me, Miss Dodd, won’t you?” said Miss Flight, suddenly all business again. “That is to say, I must quickly make some sketches and record my impressions of the magnificent greater prairie chicken while the experience is still fresh in mind. I hope, when the train next stops, to be able to descend and shoot a few as specimens. I’ve brought with me my scattergun, especially manufactured for this journey by Featherstone, Elder & Story of Newcastle upon Tyne. Perhaps you are interested in firearms? If so, I’d love to show it to you. My patrons, before they ran into financial difficulties and left me stranded on this vast continent, had the gun especially built for me, specifically for my travels in America. I’m rather proud of it. But do excuse me, won’t you? I’m so terribly pleased to have met you. Wonderful that you’re along! We must speak at greater length. I have a feeling that you and I are going to be spiffing good friends. You have the most extraordinarily blue eyes, you know, the color of an Eastern bluebird. I shall use them as a model to mix my palette when I paint that species if you don’t terribly mind. And I’m fascinated to learn more of your opinion on Monsieur Audubon’s work.” And with that the daffy Englishwoman took her leave!
While we are on the subject, and since Martha is proving at present to be exceedingly dull company, let me describe to you, dear sister, some of my other fellow travelers, who provide the only other diversion on this long, straight, monotonous iron road through country that while beautiful in its vast and empty reaches, can hardly be described as scenic. I’ve barely had time yet to acquaint myself with all of the women, but our common purpose and destination seems to have fostered a certain easy familiarity among us—personal histories and intimacies are exchanged without the usual period of tedious social posturing or shyness. These women—hardly more than girls really—are all either from the Chicago area or other parts of the Middle West, and come from all circumstances. Some appear to be escaping poverty or failed romances, or, as in my case, unpleasant “living arrangements.” Hah! While there is only one other girl from my asylum, there are several in our group from other such public facilities around thecity. Some are considerably more eccentric even than I. But then it was my observation in the asylum that nearly every resident there took solace in the fact that they could point to someone else who was madder than they. One, named Ada Ware, dresses only in black, wears a widow’s veil, and has perpetual dark circles of grief beneath her eyes. I have yet to see her smile or make any expression whatsoever. “Black Ada” the others call her.
You will, perhaps, remember Martha, whom you met on the sole occasion when you visited me in the asylum. She is a sweet thing, barely two years younger than I, though she seems younger, and homely as a stick. I am forever indebted to her, for it was Martha who was so invaluable in helping me to obtain my liberty.
As mentioned, one other girl from my own institution survived the selection process—while a number of others declined to accept Mr. Benton’s offer. It seemed remarkable to me at the time that they would give up the opportunity for freedom from that ghastly place, simply because they were squeamish about conjugal relations with savages. Perhaps I will live to regret saying this, but how could it be any worse than incarceration in that dank hellhole for the rest of one’s life?
This young girl’s name is Sara Johnstone. She’s a pretty, timid little creature, barely beyond the age of puberty. The poor thing evidently lacks the power of speech—by this I do not mean that she is simply the quiet sort—I mean that she seems unable, or at least unwilling, to utter a word. She and I had, perforce, very little contact at the hospital, and therefore hardly any opportunity to get to know one another. I have a suspicion that this will all change now, for she seems to have attached herself to me and Martha. She sits facing us on the train, and frequently leans forward with tears in her eyes to grasp my hand and squeeze it fiercely. I know nothing of her past or the reason why she was originally confined in the institution. She has no family and according to Martha had evidently been there long before I arrived—ever since she was a young child. Nor do I know who supported her there—as we both know that wretched place was not for charity cases. Martha has intimated that Dr. Kaiser himself, the director of the hospital, volunteered the poor girl for the program as a way of being rid of her—what Father might recognize as a cost-cutting measure—for according to Martha, the girl was treated very much like a “poor relation” in the hospital. Furthermore, though we are hardly free to discuss the matter with the poor thing sitting directly in front of us, Martha has suggested that the child may, in fact, have had some familial connection with the Good Doctor—possibly, we have speculated, she is the product of his own romantic liaison with a former patient? Although one must wonder what kind of man would send his own daughter away to live among savages … Whatever the child’s situation, I find it troubling that she was accepted into this program. She is such a frail little thing, terrified of the world, and so obviously ill prepared for what must certainly prove to be an arduous duty. Indeed, how could she be prepared for any experience in the real world, having grown up behind brick walls and iron-barred windows? I am certain that, like Martha, the girl is without experience in carnal matters, unless the repulsive night monster Franz visited her, too, in the dark … which I pray for her sake that he did not. In any case, I intend to watch over the child, to protect her from harm if it is within my power to do so. Oddly, her very youth and fearfulness seem to give me strength and courage.
Ah, and here come the Kelly sisters of Chicago’s Irish town, Margaret and Susan, swaggering down the aisle—redheaded, freckle-faced identical twin lassies, thick as thieves, which in their case is somewhat more than an idle expression. They take everything in these two; their shrewd pale green eyes miss nothing; I clutch my purse to breast for safekeeping.
One of them, I cannot yet tell them apart, slips into the seat beside me. “’Ave ya got some tobacco on ye, May?” she asks in a conspiratorial tone, as if we are the very best of friends though I hardly know the girl. “I’d be loookin’ to roll me a smoke.”
“I’m afraid I don’t smoke,” I answer.
“Aye,’twas easier to get a smoke in prison, than it is on this damn train,” she says. “Isn’t that so, Meggie?”
“It’s sartain, Susie,” Meggie answers.
“Do you mind my asking why you girls were in prison?” I ask. I tilt my notebook toward them. “I’m writing a letter to my sister.”
“Why, we don’t mind at-tall, dear,” says Meggie, who leans on the seat in front of me. “Prostitution and Grand Theft—ten-year sentences in the Illinois State Penitentiary.” She says this with real bravado in her voice as if it is a thing of which to be very proud, and as I write she leans down closer to make sure that I record the details correctly. “Aye, don’t forget the Grand Theft,” she repeats, pointing her finger at my notebook.
“Right, Meggie,” adds Susan, nodding her head with satisfaction. “And we’d not have been apprehended, either, if it weren’t for the fact that the gentleman we turned over in Lincoln Park’appened to be a municipal jeewdge. Aye, the old reprobate tried to solicit us for sexual favors. ‘Twins!’ he said. ‘Two halves of a bun around my sausage’ he desired to make of us. Ah ya beggar!—we gave him two halves of a brick on either side of his damn head, we did! In two shakes of a lamb’s tail we had his pocket watch and his wallet in our possession—thinking in our ignorance what great good fortune that he was carryingsech a large soom of cash. No doubt His Jeewdgeship’s weekly bribe revenue.”
“It’s sartain, Susie, and that would’ve been the end of it,” chimes in Margaret, “if it weren’t for that damn cash. The jeewdge went directly to his great good pal the Commissioner of Police and a manhoontthe likes of which Chicago has never before seen was launched to bring the infamous Kelly twins to juicetice!”
“’Tis the God’s own truth, Meggie,” says Susan, shaking her head. “You probably read about us in the newspaper, Missy,” she says to me. “We were quite famous for a time, me and Meggie. After a short trial, which the public advocate charged with our defense spent nappin’—the old bugger—we were sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. Aye, ten years just for defendin’ our honor against a lecherous oldjeewdge, with a pocket full of bribe money, if you can believe that, Missy.”
“And your parents?” I ask. “Where are they?”
“Oh, we ‘ave no idea, darlin’,” says Margaret. “We were foundlings, you see. Wee babies left on the steps of the church. Isn’t that so, Susie? Grew up in the city’s Irish orphanage, but we didn’t really care for the place. Aye, we been living by our wits ever since we roon away from there when we were just ten years old.”
Now Margaret stands straight again and scans the other passengers with a certain predatory interest. Her gaze comes to rest on the woman sitting across the aisle from us—a woman named Daisy Lovelace; I have only spoken to her briefly, but I know that she is a Southerner and has the distinct look of ruined gentry about her. She holds an ancient dirty white French poodle on her lap. The dog’s hair is stained red around its butt and muzzle, and around its rheumy, leaking eyes.
“Wouldn’t ’appen to’ave a bit of tobacco, on ye, Missy, would ya now?” Margaret asks her.
“Ah’m afraid naught”, says the woman in a slow drawl, and in not a particularly friendly tone.
“Loovely little dog, you’ve got there,” says Margaret, sliding into the seat beside the Southerner. “What’s its name, if you don’t mind me askin’?” The twin’s insinuating manner is transparent; it is clear that she is not interested in the woman’s dog.
Ignoring her, the Lovelace woman sets her dog down on the floor between their feet. “You go on now an’ make teetee, Feeern Loueeese,” she coos to it in an accent as thick as cane molasses, “Go wannow sweethaart. You make teetee for Momma.” And the wretched little creature totters stiffly up the aisle sniffling and snorting, finally squatting to pee by a vacant seat.
“Fern Louise, is it then?” says Meggie. “Isn’t that a grand name, Susie?”
“Loovely, Meggie,” Susan says. “A loovely little dog.”
Still ignoring them, the Southern woman pulls a small silver flask from her purse and takes a quick sip, which act is of great interest to the twins.
“Is that whiskey you’ve got there, Missy?” Margaret asks.
“No, it is naught whiskey,” says the woman coolly. “It is mah nuurve medicine, doctor’s order, and no, you may not have a taste of it.”
The twins have met their match with this one I can see!
Now here comes my friend, Gretchen Fathauer, bulling her way down the aisle of the train, swinging her arms and singing some Swiss folksong in a robust voice. Gretchen never fails to cheer us all up. She is a big-hearted, enthusiastic soul—a large, boisterous, buxom rosy-cheeked lass who looks like she might be able to spawn single-handedly all the babes that the Cheyenne nation might require.
By now we all know Gretchen’s history almost as well as our own: Her family were immigrants from Switzerland, who settled on the upland prairie west of Chicago to farm wheat when Gretchen was a girl. But the family farm failed after a series of bad harvests caused by harsh winters, blight, and insect attack, and Gretchen was forced to leave home as a young woman and seek employment in the city. She found work as a domestic with the McCormick family—yes, the very same—Father’s dear friend Cyrus McCormick, who invented the reaper … isn’t it odd, Hortense, to think that we probably visited the McCormicks in our youth at the same time that Gretchen was employed there—but of course we would never have paid any attention to the bovine Swiss chambermaid.
Gretchen longed to have a family of her own and one day she answered an advertisement in the Tribune seeking “mail-order” brides for western settlers. She posted her application and several months later was notified that she had been paired with a homesteader from Oklahoma territory. Her intended was to meet her at the train station in St. Louis on an appointed day, and convey her to her new home. Gretchen gave notice to the McCormicks and two weeks later boarded the train to St. Louis. But alas, although she has a heart of gold, Gretchen is terribly plain … indeed, I must confess that she is rather more than plain, to the extent that one of the less kind members of our expedition has referred to the poor dear as “Miss Potato Face” … and even those more charitable among us must admit that her countenance does have a certain unfortunate tuberous quality.
Well, Gretchen’s intended had only to take one look at her, with which he excused himself under pretense of fetching his baggage, and Gretchen never laid eyes on the miserable cur again. She tells the story now with great good humor, but she was clearly devastated. She had given up everything—and was now abandoned at the train station in a strange city, with only her suitcase, a few personal effects, and the meager savings from her former employment. She could not bear the humiliation of going back to Chicago and asking the McCormicks for her old job. Nor was the possibility of returning to her family, shamed thusly by matrimonial rejection, any more appealing to her. No, Gretchen was determined to have a husband and children one way or another. She sat on the bench at the train station and wept openly at her plight. It was at that very moment that a gentleman approached her. He handed her a small paper flyer on which was printed the following:
If you are a healthy young woman of childbearing age, who seeks matrimony, exotic travel, and adventure, please present yourself to the following address promptly at 9.00 a.m., Thursday morning on the twelfth day of February, the year of our Lord, 1875.
Gretchen laughs when she tells the story—a great hearty bellow—and says in her heavy accent, “Vell, you know, I tought this young fellow must be a messenger from God, I truly do. And ven I go to to displace, and dey ask me if I like to marry a Cheyenne Indian fellow and have his babies, I say: ‘Vell, I tink de savages not be so chooosy, as dat farmer yah? Sure, vy not? I make beeg, strong babies for my new hustband. Yah, I feed da whole damn nursery, yah?’” And Gretchen pounds her massive breast and laughs and laughs.
Which causes all the rest of us to laugh with her.
Unable to break the Southern woman’s steely indifference to them, the Kelly sisters have moved on to try their luck in the next car. They remind me of a pair of red foxes prowling a meadow for whatever they might turn up.
Just now as I was writing, my new friend, Phemie, came to sit beside me. Euphemia Washington is her full name—a statuesque colored girl who came to Chicago via Canada. She is about my same age, and quite striking, I should say nearly fierce, in appearance, being over six feet in height, with beautiful skin, the color of burnished mahogany—a finely formed nose with fiercely flared nostrils, and full Negro lips. I’m sure, dear sister, that you and the family will find it perfectly scandalous to learn that I am now fraternizing with Negroes. But on this train all are equal, at least such is the case in my egalitarian mind.
“I am writing a letter to my sister at home,” I said to her, “describing the circumstances of some of the girls on the train. Tell me how you came to be here, Phemie, so that I may make a full report to her.”
At this she chuckled, a rich warm laugh that seemed to issue from deep in her chest. “You are the first person who has asked me that, May,” she said. “And why would your sister be interested in the nigger girl? Some of the others seem quite distressed that I am along.” Phemie is very well spoken, with the most lovely, melodic voice that I’ve ever heard—deep and resonant, her speech like a poem, a song.
It occurred to me that, truth be told, you, dear sister, probably would not be interested in hearing about the nigger girl. Of course, this I did not say to Phemie.
“How did you happen to go to Canada, Phemie?” I asked.
She chuckled again. “You don’t think that I look like a native Canadian, May?”
“You look like an African, Phemie,” I said bluntly. “An African princess!”
“Yes, my mother came from a tribe called the Ashanti,” Phemie said. “The greatest warriors in all of Africa,” she added. “One day when she was a young girl she was gathering firewood with her mother and the other women. She fell behind, and sat down to rest. She was not worried, for she knew that her mother would return for her. As she sat, leaning against a tree, she fell asleep. And when she woke up, men from another tribe, who spoke a tongue she did not understand, stood round her. She was only a child, and she was very frightened.
“They took her away to a strange place, and kept her there in chains. Finally she was put in the hold of a ship with hundreds of others. She was many weeks at sea. She did not know what was happening to her, and she still believed that her mother would come back for her. She never stopped believing that. It kept her alive.
“The ship finally reached a city the likes of which my mother had never before seen or imagined. Many had died on route but she had lived. In the city she was sold at auction to a white man, a cotton shipper, who owned a fleet of sailing vessels in the port city of Apalachicola, Florida.
“My mother’s first master was very good to her,” Phemie continued. “He took her into his home where she did domestic duties and even received a bit of education. She learned to read and write, a thing unheard of among the other slaves. And when she became a young woman, her master took her into his bed.
“I was the child born of this union,” Phemie said. “I, too, grew up in that house, where I was given lessons in the kitchen by the tutor of Master’s ‘real’ children—his white family. Eventually the mistress discovered the truth of my parentage—perhaps she finally saw some resemblance between the kitchen nigger’s child and her own children. And one night when I was not yet seven years old, two men, slave merchants, came and took me away—just as my mother had been taken from her family. She wept and pleaded and fought the men, but they struck her and knocked her to the ground. That was the last time I ever saw my mother, lying unconscious with her face battered and bleeding …” Phemie paused here and looked out the train window, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes.
“I was sold to the owner of a plantation outside Savannah, Georgia,” she continued. “He was a bad man, an evil man. He drank and treated his slaves with terrible cruelty. The first day that I arrived there he had me branded on the back with his own initials … Yes, he burned his initials into the flesh of all his slaves so that they would be easily identified if ever they ran away. I was still just a child, eight years old, but after the first week that I was there, the man began to have me sent to his private quarters at night. I do not need to tell you what happened there … I was badly hurt …
“Several years passed this way,” she went on in a softer voice. “Then one day a Canadian natural scientist came to visit the plantation. He came under the guise of studying the flora and fauna there—but he was an abolitionist and his true purpose was to spread the word to the slaves about the underground railroad. He carried excellent letters of introduction and was unwittingly welcomed at all the plantations. Because I had a little education, and because I had always been fascinated with wild things of all kinds, my master charged me with accompanying the naturalist on his daily excursions to collect specimens. Over the several days of his visit, the man spoke to me often of Canada, told me that every man, woman, and child lived free and equal there—that none was owned by another. The scientist liked me and took pity on me. He told me that I was too young to attempt to escape alone but that I should encourage some of the older slaves to take me with them. He showed me maps of the best routes north and gave me the names of people along the way who would help us.
“I spoke to some of the others, but all were too terrified of the Master to attempt such an escape. They had seen what Master did to runaway slaves who were returned to him.
“One night a week or so after the man left, after I had returned weeping and in great pain to the slaves quarters from Master’s bedroom, I made a bundle of a few clothes and what little food I could gather and I left alone. I did not care if I died trying to escape. Death seemed welcome compared to my life.
“I was young and strong,” Phemie said, “and over the next several nights I ran through the forest and swamps and canebrakes. I never stopped running. Sometimes I could hear the hounds baying behind me, but the naturalist had instructed me to wade up streambeds and across ponds, which would cause the dogs to lose the scent. I ran and I ran.
For weeks I traveled north, moving by night, hiding in the undergrowth during the day. I ate what I could scavenge in the forest and fields, wild roots and greens, sometimes a bit of fruit or vegetables stolen from farms or gardens. I was hungry and often I did not know where I was, but I kept the North Star always before me and I looked for landmarks which the scientist had described to me. Often I longed to go into the towns I passed to beg a little food, but I dared not. Upon my back I still wore Master’s brand, and if captured I would surely be returned to him and terribly punished.
“In those weeks alone in the wilderness, I began to remember the stories my mother had told me of her own people, of the men hunting and the women gathering from the earth. I would never have survived my journey to the land of freedom were it not for what my mother had taught me about the wilds. My grandmother’s knowledge, passed down through my mother, saved my life. It was as if, all these years later, my mother’s mother came back for me just as she had always believed she would come for her …
“It was several months before I finally crossed into Canada,” Phemie continued. “There I called on people whose names the naturalist had given me and eventually I was placed in the home of a doctor’s family. I was well treated there and was able to continue my education. I lived with the doctor and his family for almost ten years—I worked for them and was paid an honest wage for my labors.
“One day I happened to see a small notice in the newspaper requesting young single women of any race, creed, or color to participate in an important volunteer program on the American frontier. I answered the advertisement … and, here we are … you and I”
“But if you were happy with the doctor’s family in Canada,” I asked Phemie, “why did you wish to leave there, to come on this mad adventure?”
“They were fine people,” Phemie said. “I loved them and will be forever grateful to them. But you see, May, I was still a servant. I was paid for my work, that is true, but I was still a servant to white folks. I dreamed of more for myself, I dreamed to be a free woman, truly free, on my own and beholden to no others. I owed that to my mother, and to my people. I know that as a white woman, it must be difficult for you to understand this.”
I patted Phemie on the back of her hand. “You’d be surprised, Phemie,” I said, “at how well I understand the longing for freedom.”
But now an ugly thing has occurred, spoiling the moment. As Phemie and I were sitting together, the Southern woman Daisy Lovelace, seated across the aisle, set her ancient miserable little poodle down on the seat beside her and said in a voice so loud that we couldn’t help but turn to look. “Feeern Loueeese,” she said, “would you rather be a niggah, or would you rather be daid?” upon which cue the little dog teetered stiffly and then rolled over on its back with its little bowed legs sticking straight in the air. Miss Lovelace shrieked with mean-spirited laughter.
“Wretched woman!” I muttered. “Pay no attention to her, Phemie.”
“Of course I don’t,” Phemie said, unconcerned. “The poor soul is drunk, May, and believe me, I’ve heard far worse than that. I’m sure that such a parlor trick was a source of great amusement to her plantation friends. And now she finds herself among our motley group, where she must at least assert her superiority over the nigger girl. I think we should not judge her just yet.”
I have dozed off, with my head on Phemie’s shoulder, only to be rudely awakened by the shrill voice of a dreadful woman named Narcissa White, an evangelical Episcopalian who is enrolled in the program under the auspices of the American Church Missionary Society. Now Miss White comes bustling down the aisle of the train passing out religious pamphlets. “‘Ye who enter the wilderness without faith shall perish’ said the Lord Jesus Christ,” she preaches, and other such nonsense, which only serves to further agitate the others—some of whom already seem as skittish as cattle going to the slaughterhouse.
I’m afraid that Miss White and I have taken an instant dislike to one another, and I fear that we are destined to become bitter enemies. She is enormously tiresome and bores us all witless with her sanctimonious attitudes and evangelical rantings. As you well know, Hortense, I have never had much interest in the church. Perhaps the hypocrisy inherent in Father’s position as a church elder, while remaining one of the least Christ-like men I’ve ever known, has something to do with my general cynicism toward organized religion of all kinds.
The White woman has already stated that she has no intention of bearing a child with her Cheyenne husband, nor indeed of having conjugal relations with him, and she assures us that she signed up for this mission strictly as a means of giving herself to the Lord Jesus—to save the soul of her heathen intended by teaching him “the ways of Christ and the true path to salvation,” as she puts it in her most pious manner. Evidently she intends to distribute her pamphlets among the savages, and seemed not in the least deterred when I pointed out to her that very likely they won’t be able to read them. It may be blasphemous for me to say so, but personally, I believe that our Christian God as He is represented by the likes of Miss White may be of somewhat limited use to the savages …
I will write to you again soon, my dearest sister …