By Irene Wittig World War II and the Nazis have been with me all my life, coloring all my memories, affecting my interpretation of politics and world events, and influencing my choices of movies to see and books to read. It was bound to inspire my writing. But it took time. I started writing because I fell in love with the hand painted ceramics I saw in Italy when I lived there. I set out to learn how to do it, and was eager to share that knowledge. So I wrote THE CLAY CANVAS, CREATIVE PAINTING ON FUNCTIONAL CERAMICS, and many magazine articles. I so enjoyed the painting and the writing, that I illustrated and wrote the alliterative AN AMUSING ALPHABET for pre-schoolers, based on designs I’d originally developed on ceramics. But the Nazi era was never far from my mind. It had exploded my family, killing some, throwing others from their home in Vienna to Italy (where I was born), New York, France, Argentina, and Uruguay. My early childhood was spent changing countries and languages until we too arrived in New York into a world of displaced Europeans, many of them Viennese. Unlike many immigrants who’d come to America seeking a better life, they had come because they’d been forced to leave lives they’d loved merely because they were Jewish, or half-Jewish, or married to Jews. Even as the years passed by, the past was never past. Anger, grief and longing rippled out from one generation to another. Finally I was ready to write about Vienna. Unexpectedly, I found myself writing about what life might have been for someone who had stayed. And so it was that my novel ALL THAT LINGERS was born. Now that I felt like a writer, I couldn’t stop, so I wrote and published a few short stories with a twist called SHORT TALES AND RUMINATIONS, and have just launched my new novel THE BEST THING ABOUT BENNETT, which was partially inspired by experiences my husband and I had in Uganda. Inspiration can come from a world-changing event, or something small and seemingly unimportant—a dream, a conversation heard on a train, an unexpected visitor. In doing research for ALL THAT LINGERS, I collected videos and recordings, articles and photographs that I thought would interest readers and put them all on my website:
“Those Not-so-Wicked Sporting Ladies of the Wicked West”
by Mim Eichmann
A hundred years ago they were known as soiled doves, frail sisters, bawds, painted ladies, scarlet women, fille de joie, molls, courtesans, concubines, sporting woman, denizens, strumpets, adventuresses, working girls, tarts, unfortunates, the demimonde, the tenderloin, shady ladies, jezebels, harridans and harlots, among many other names, and more often than not, were residents of a brothel, red light district, parlor house, seraglio, hog ranch, crib, harem, the Line, whorehouse, bordello, or a bawdy house. Many of these ladies of the night had fallen unintentionally – and many intentionally — into the sporting life as it was typically known, wishing to obscure their true names, origins and back stories, making it virtually impossible to ever reliably unravel their individual and occasionally, lurid histories.
In most western frontier towns where men significantly outnumbered women — a ratio of at least 20 to 1 and typically far greater — prostitutes were considered an essential, though certainly not warmly embraced, necessity by their conservative female counterparts. Decent married women were willing to put up with prostitutes to keep those randy single men away from their own otherwise puritanical daughters until those men managed to firmly affix a wedding ring on their daughters’ hand. All a young girl had was her reputation and, as was well known, if that evaporated even by innuendo, she was most likely ruined for the rest of her life as borne out in literature by Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton and countless other authors of the day.
Once a woman had crossed over that line, society tended to lump loose women into a single mold. Certainly all of them had to maintain a shrewd edge, but they were quite diverse in terms of temperament, education, worldliness, scientific and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Of these so-called fallen women, it’s interesting to note that the madams, or owners, of many brothels, were wealthy, powerful and quite influential individuals whose brothels became centers of community, arts and culture in western towns. Some of the most powerful madams were serious patronesses of art, music and education, as well as being philanthropists and major real estate moguls.
Being a madam was one of the few actual “careers” afforded a woman in the 19th Century — the earliest prototype we have of a career woman, in fact! Madams (and other wealthy prostitutes) donated money to charities, hospitals, churches, schools, cared for the impoverished and sick, and housed the homeless when no one else could be bothered. They were involved with helping fund many cities’ initial infrastructures of gas, telephone and electric lines as well as owning mining claims, stocks, investing in municipal bonds, even jumping into the fray to keep banks afloat during challenging financial years. There was a huge demand for their money, but the women themselves, as well as their children, were forever shunned by society.
According to June Willson Read’s biography “Frontier Madam: The Life of Dell Burke, Lady of Lusk”, huge financial contributions by Dell Burke, a madam in Lusk, Wyoming, created infrastructures such as railroads, waterworks and electric lines through that part of the state. Several biographers have mentioned Josephine “Chicago Joe” Hensley (or Airey), a madam in Helena, Montana who had a weekly payroll of $1,000 for numerous businesses she owned outside that of her brothel’s, paid hefty taxes on more than $200,000 in real estate holdings, and also contributed huge sums to many charities and political candidates, although she was never allowed to attend any of their meetings or even be introduced to anyone involved in those important enterprises. According to Anne Seagraves’ book “Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West”, “these enterprising women, who played an important role within their communities, were never invited to join or attend a commercial club. They were not accepted by society, and in most cases, were not even protected by the law due to their profession.”
Mattie Silks, a wealthy Denver brothel owner, claimed that she had become a madam simply as a successful business venture and that she had never worked as a prostitute. This claim was quite interestingly never disputed. And Georgia Lee, a Fairbanks, Alaska prostitute, was quietly involved in funding many civic affairs and co-founded the Fairbanks branch of the Humane Society according to “Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush” by Lael Morgan.
Another well known beautiful face who was a particular enigma was Etta Place, who for those of us enamored many years ago with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid”, was either a high class parlor attraction at Fanny Porter’s infamous house in Hell’s Half Acre in San Antonio, Texas, or she was a sedate schoolteacher in a one-room rural schoolhouse, helping to mastermind many of the infamous duos’ train robberies, something of a Robin Hood operation, according to Michael Rutter’s “Boudoirs to Brothels – the Intimate World of Wild West Women”. A young lady who led an incredibly complex double life, the beautiful Etta Place quite skillfully disappeared without a trace in the early 1900s.
Many prostitutes had exceptional nursing and mid-wife skills, often obtained by necessity, along with vast knowledge of herbs, medicinal concoctions and other healing remedies. Occasionally they were clandestinely called upon to assist a married woman experiencing a difficult childbirth, but that same woman would turn her head the opposite direction afterwards if she encountered the prostitute on the street, refusing to acknowledge an acquaintance. Additionally, women were not allowed any form of birth control (which was often unreliable anyway) and some prostitutes were quietly skilled abortionists, even aiding “respectable women” who wished to end an ill-timed pregnancy. In the years between 1850 and 1870, one historian estimated that one abortion was performed for every five or six live births in America.
Although she later denied it, Margaret Mitchell originally claimed that her fictional character of Belle Watling in “Gone with the Wind” was based on a madam in Lexington, Kentucky known as Belle Brezing, who died just after the movie’s 1939 release. Ms. Mitchell’s husband was from Lexington and familiar with Belle Brezing’s checkered history, including the fact that the woman was quite well known as an excellent nurse. In both the book and the movie, Belle Watling indeed claims to be a nurse and donates a rich purse filled with gold coins to the rapidly failing Confederate cause through Melanie Wilkes, the only married woman within the group willing to be seen accepting such a windfall from one of Atlanta’s most notorious madams.
Pearl DeVere, who was the madam of the Old Homestead brothel in Cripple Creek, Colorado, like so many others of the demimonde, wove multiple stories about her early life that makes it impossible to verify any of the tales. Not even a verifiable photograph of the young woman exists. Born in Evansville, Indiana in 1859 as Eliza Martin into what certainly appears to have been a well-to-do family, exactly what led her into the world of prostitution is somewhat mysterious, based on the many different tales that Pearl herself fabricated over her short life. She arrived in Cripple Creek possibly via Denver, around the time of the 1893 repeal of the Silver Act and set herself up quickly in the “trade” in the newly booming mining town. Her sophistication, remarkable intelligence, and appreciation of fine arts and culture helped her build one of the most influential brothels in the country.
So who was Pearl DeVere? Unless you’re from Colorado, have studied the Cripple Creek gold rush or have actually visited Cripple Creek and maybe participated in the annual Pearl DeVere bed race or some other quaint festival, you’ve probably never even heard of this woman. And, as we’ve so often heard in recent years, history is really just “his” story and rarely also “her” story, particularly with respect to “career” women and their contributions to our past.
Mabel Barbee Lee’s memoir, “Cripple Creek Days”, published in 1958, was drawn from her recollections as a very young child having grown up in the region. In the acknowledgements Ms. Lee mentions that one of her neighbor’s names, Molly Letts, was a pseudonym in her book because she had been a former prostitute and even after fifty years had ensued, she refused to let the woman’s reputation be sullied.
Without question, however, at age 11, Mabel’s recollections of Pearl DeVere were firmly stamped on her memory, even though Mabel’s timelines appear to be a little fuzzy on occasion. In mining camps very few women had beautiful stylish clothes or jewelry or immodest displays of wealth, certainly very impressionable items for a pre-teen. Pearl was an excellent dress designer and wore her creations perfectly over her marvelously sculpted physique. At age 31 she was a beautiful girl with red hair, bright flashing eyes and a slender build sporting gorgeous tight-fitting clothes and it was said that she never wore the same outfit twice. She was strong-willed, shrewd, very well read, eloquent, and a very smart businesswoman.
According to Janet Lecompte’s introduction in “Emily: The Diary of a Hard-Worked Woman”, a journal by a 42-year-old Denver divorcee: “In 1890 the average working woman in the United States had started to work at age 15 and was now 22, earning less than $6 a week for a 12-hour day. In Denver, 15% of all women worked in 1890, most of them as domestic help, laundresses, or seamstresses, some making as much as $4-$6 per week.” Unlike out East, there were very few factories or mills. A miner’s wages typically brought a working man $3 per day for a nine-hour day. By contrast, a wealthy man booking a stylish young courtesan’s company at the Old Homestead was shelling out $250 for the evening and had to book well in advance! One can easily see the attraction for a young cultured woman such as Pearl to have built such an empire!
Mabel Barbee Lee goes on to say in her memoir: “Pearl DeVere became my secret sorrow, the heroine of my fondest daydreams, mysterious, fascinating and forbidden.” Even some fifty years afterwards, Mabel vividly recalled hearing a gramophone playing from the Old Homestead’s windows, an expensive toy back in those days, and distinctly remembers the many details of Pearl’s unusual New Orleans’ early jazz style funeral cortege. Accounts of the Old Homestead’s opulent parlor with a telephone, expensive Turkish carpets, chandeliers and the unheard of extravagance of two bathtubs also fill Mabel’s remembrances. These finer houses demanded an almost European-like adherence to order, an essential step towards our country’s slowly working its way towards the civil society we’ve attempted to establish since that time.
Along with so many others of the demimonde, Pearl’s contributions to the economic and political movements of the era were obscured as we’ve followed “his” story through our country’s development. However, such acknowledgement is richly deserved and a sad omission. These enterprising women’s contributions are long forgotten – or in many cases, were never even recognized. But silently, all around us, as our first “career” women, their intriguing legacies live on.
Photos courtesy Charlotte Bumgarner, owner of The Old Homestead Museum, Cripple Creek CO
Pearl DeVere’s grave marker – so many admirers originally placed jewelry around the heart-shaped stone that unfortunately the gifts stained the marble and a fence has now been erected around the tombstone to deflect such well-meaning, but destructive additions. Appropriately, however, a pearl necklace remains.
Lil Lovell – a beautiful prostitute in Denver who may have originally worked at the Old Homestead according to “Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls – Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930” written by Jan MacKell Collins.
Mim Eichmann’s debut historical fiction novel “A Sparrow Alone” – a provocative coming-of-age saga of female empowerment during the 1890s Cripple Creek, CO gold rush — was published on April 15, 2020 by Living Springs Publishers of Centennial, CO. Ms. Eichmann is a professional musician, singer/songwriter and choreographer living in Wheaton, Il. Her author website is: www.mimeichmann.com.
I’d like to welcome Naomi Miller to the blog today for a guest post.
Dr. Naomi Miller is a professor of English and the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. An award-winning author of books on Renaissance women and gender, she teaches courses on Shakespeare and his female contemporaries, as well as on modern women’s adaptations and reinventions of Shakespeare. Her debut novel, Imperfect Alchemist (Allison & Busby, November 2020), focuses on Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke: https://naomimillerbooks.com/.
After thirty years as a scholar of early modern women’s studies, she realized that her work wasn’t close to being complete as long as the wider public had no awareness of the extraordinary women authors who were published and read in the time of Shakespeare. Imperfect Alchemist is the first in a projected series of novels centered on these authors, called Shakespeare’s Sisters – celebrating Renaissance women not simply for their relation to men (like the wives of Henry VIII), but for their own voices.
She was interviewed by the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast “Shakespeare Unlimited” – a great interview if you wish to listen here:
Many popular novels about Renaissance women picture them in relation to powerful men. One need look no further than the steady stream of novels about the wives of Henry VIII, perpetuating a phenomenon that I have named the “Noah’s ark approach,” which positions women in dependent relation to famous men. Contemporary readers of historical fiction have missed out on an extraordinary array of women’s voices that were heard in their own period – both acclaimed and reviled – but then silenced over time and excluded from the canon of accepted classics.
My own projected series, Shakespeare’s Sisters, comprises six interrelated historical novels that imagine the stories of early modern women authors from their own perspectives. These novels offer fictional engagements with an array of early modern figures, from queens to commoners. Historical women, including Mary Sidney Herbert, the protagonist of Imperfect Alchemist, are at the center of the narratives, bringing their voices and experiences to life for modern audiences.
Shakespeare’s Sisters centers on women whose lives and voices both shape and are shaped by women, many of whom appear in each other’s stories. Spanning generations and social classes, the series paints a multi-hued portrait of Renaissance England, seen through the lives of courtiers, commoners, poets, playwrights and, above all, indomitable women who broke the rules of their time while juggling many of the responsibilities and obstacles faced by women worldwide today.
Imperfect Alchemist, the opening novel in the series, is an imaginative reinvention of the remarkable life of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke – friend of Queen Elizabeth, visionary scientist, advocate for women writers and scandalous lover of a much younger man. One of the earliest women authors in Renaissance England to publish under her own name, the Countess successfully forged a place for herself in a man’s world.
A member of one of England’s leading families, she carved out space for herself as a daring and often controversial figure in a royal court riven by jealousies and intrigues. Her pioneering literary and scientific experiments challenged many of Renaissance England’s established conventions – one of the things that most strongly drew me to her.
As an influential literary patron as well as author, she convened a literary salon of writers whose membership included Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson and other authors interested in testing the limits of literary forms. Her own play about Antony and Cleopatra is believed to have influenced Shakespeare.
Responding to the Countess’s role as mentor to a cohort of women writers – including Mary Wroth, Aemilia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary and Anne Clifford, all of whom will play lead roles in the Shakespeare’s Sisters series – I have imagined these women into her circle, their interaction with the male authors inspiring visions of new possibilities.
In Imperfect Alchemist, the fictional Mary Sidney Herbert is mediated through my knowledge of her real-life circumstances and her writings. She was also a scientist, practicing alchemy in her private laboratory to prepare chemical and herbal remedies. Although the Countess was a well regarded alchemist, no manuscript records of her alchemical recipes or experiments survive. I have drawn on historical accounts documenting the detailed practices of other female alchemists of the period present an authentic, if conjectural, account of her scientific work.
As the acclaimed historical novelist Sarah Dunant observes, fashioning historical verisimilitude, “like a pointillist painting,” lies in the details. Indeed, Dunant describes historical details as “gold dust,” giving her readers confidence that they’re encountering worlds that actually existed, thus grounding the novel’s inventions in a “multicolored” world.
To lend a broader perspective than Mary’s point of view alone, I introduce an invented character, Rose Commin, her lady’s maid – a country girl who brings an entirely different outlook to their intersecting lives. Trained to serve and observe, Rose proves to be both a keen judge of character and a skilled artist whose drawings give new dimension to Mary’s own life and writings.
Most of the characters in the book are fictional renditions of real historical figures whose roles combine elements of their actual lives with my own inventions. The “supporting cast,” both real and invented, adds three-dimensionality to the fictional storyline.
Once I embarked on the first draft of the novel, I had to guard against my tendency, as a scholar, to plunge down historical or literary “rabbit-holes,” enticed by fascinating details that would interrupt the writing process and might obscure rather than illuminate the story – dust rather than gold dust. The most valuable advice I received came from a novelist friend who reminded me that “as a novelist, your responsibility is to the story, not to history. Just tell the story that matters!”
So what is the story that matters in Imperfect Alchemist? Most of the novel is written from two alternating points of view: Mary’s, in the third person, and Rose’s, in the first person. As I was writing, the story that came to matter the most was about both of these women, driven by sometimes conflicting imperatives of creative expression and desire – one a quiet artist, the other an outspoken author – who come to connect across class lines, learning truths from each other that they never expected to discover about themselves and their world.
The celebrated novelist Hilary Mantel maintains that “you become a novelist so you can tell the truth,” and observes that “most historical fiction is … in dialogue with the past.” My driving aim is to “tell the truth” that becomes visible in these historical women’s writings, and to put my own fiction into dialogue with theirs.
My goal has been to tell a story that imagines the perspectives of historical women in a world that encompasses both known facts and imagined possibilities, illuminating the historical record without being limited by it. I like to think that the real Mary Sidney Herbert, alchemist and author, would appreciate my transmutation of her story.
She’s been fascinating people since 1948, when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker first wrote about her.
The problem is, she might never have existed. Not as Pennypacker described her, that is. But I’ll explain.
We know Agent 355 was a real person…specifically, a woman who assisted George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. Washington’s spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge, devised a numerical code dictionary for the Culper spies to use when composing their intelligence letters.
And the code number for “lady” was 355.
These days, people often use the words woman and lady interchangeably. But in eighteenth-century parlance, a lady was distinct from a mere woman. Simply put, ladies were women from the upper classes…usually from the landed gentry or urban elites.
And ladies were very carefully brought up. They were educated in the feminine arts and social graces of the time. Not all ladies were wealthy, though; some lived in a state of what one might call “genteel poverty”.
In any case, we know 355 was real because Abraham Woodhull – that is, Samuel Culper, Senior – mentioned her in one of his intelligence letters. He didn’t say whether she was rich or poor or what exactly she did, only that she helped him in some way. Of her existence, this is the only real evidence we have.
But we don’t have any evidence at all when it comes to her actual identity. This is something historians have loved to speculate about.
So…Rose puts forward Anna Smith Strong as 355. She was Woodhull’s neighbor in his hometown of Setauket, on eastern Long Island. On at least a few occasions, she traveled with him on his journeys to and from New York. Because the checkpoint guards were less likely to search men who traveled with their wives, she pretended to be Mrs. Woodhull, and the ruse succeeded.
Another candidate for 355 – though less likely, in my view – has been Woodhull’s sister, Mary Underhill. She lived in New York with her husband, where they ran a boardinghouse. Because Woodhull stayed there whenever he went to New York, Mary probably knew her brother was spying. Whether she ever helped him in his spying, though, is something we cannot know.
A more intriguing candidate for 355 is Robert Townsend’s sister, Sally. Morton Pennypacker strongly believed Sally shared important information with Robert – Culper, Junior – which he then passed on to George Washington.
Since then, the theory that Sally Townsend was a spy has been a popular one, though it appears Pennypacker never thought to identify her as the “lady” from Woodhull’s letter. Historian Paul R. Misencik, in Sally Townsend, George Washington’s Teenage Spy, explains why he believes Sally may have been 355.
The thing is, Sally would have had to be acquainted with Abraham Woodhull in order to be that lady. Perhaps they were acquainted, though there doesn’t seem to be any proof of that. And even if they did meet, it’s hard to say whether they knew each other well enough for the level of trust required to spy together.
So, as I do in the cases of Anna Strong and Mary Underhill, I have my doubts about Sally Townsend being 355.
Then who was she?
Woodhull’s word choice is key, as is the fact that he addressed all his intelligence letters to Benjamin Tallmadge, who later decoded them. In the letter I mentioned above, he told Tallmadge that “by the assistance of a 355 [lady] of my acquaintance, [I] shall be able to outwit them all.” Below is a caption of the sentence from that very same letter, written August 15, 1779:
From the George Washington Papers. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
But Tallmadge, like Woodhull, was a Setauket native. He was close to Woodhull’s age, and they grew up together. And his connection to Anna Strong was as close as Woodhull’s, if not closer. His widowed father, the Reverend Benjamin Tallmadge, married Zipporah Strong on January 3, 1770. And Zipporah was the sister of Selah Strong, Anna’s husband.
Therefore, it seems strange that Woodhull, in addressing Tallmadge, would refer to Mrs. Strong as “a lady of my acquaintance [emphasis added].” That would infer that Woodhull knew her, and that Tallmadge did not.
But with Anna Strong, that couldn’t have been the case. Otherwise, he’d have written “a lady of our acquaintance” or “a lady we know.” Wouldn’t he?
Of course, Woodhull did know Mary Underhill much better, as she was his sister, and I’m sure Tallmadge knew her, too. But a close relative, with whom one grew up, is no mere “acquaintance.” So Mary Underhill was also probably not the mysterious unnamed lady.
Now it is very likely that Tallmadge never met Sally Townsend. And again, we don’t know for sure whether Woodhull ever met her or not. Even if he did, the odds are high that Robert Townsend would not have permitted Woodhull to stop off in Oyster Bay to glean secrets from his little sister.
That doesn’t mean Robert himself never gleaned a secret or two from Sally. But whether he did or not, the way Woodhull wrote the above sentence makes it sound as though he received direct assistance from this lady. That wouldn’t have been the case if Robert gathered the information from Sally and then shared it second-hand – and verbally – with Woodhull afterwards.
Like I said, the clue seems to lie in Woodhull’s word choice.
So…who, then, was 355?
This is a subject I will be returning to in the future!