Lilian Heath. Such a demure name.
She was anything but.
In the 1880’s, Lilian’s pa got her a job assisting Dr. Thomas Maghee, the physician
in the wide-open rail road town of Rawlins, WY. A petite little thing still in high school, Lilian was pretty fearless, but not stupid. She dressed like a man and carried a .32 when she went on calls late at night. She and the doc did everything from deliver babies to reconstruct a man’s face after his failed suicide attempt.
The nursing position set Lilian’s destiny. She graduated high school, and, with her father’s blessing and Dr. Maghee’s recommendation, headed off to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa. She was one of only of three women in the class. After completing her training, she returned to Rawlins to practice medicine and was well-received … by the men folk. The women in town were another story. Catty, and jealous, they whispered behind her back, accused her of being a know-it-all, a few even refused to pay Lilian for services rendered. Lilian’s mother Calista wasn’t thrilled with the vocation either, believing her daughter had over-stepped her bounds as a woman.
Maybe, but if a man lay dying of a gunshot wound 30 or 40 miles way, Lilian put on her big girl breeches and made the ride.
Clearly, being a trained female physician was a bad thing, because you could, you know, save lives.
Lilian met her husband, Louis Nelson, in Rawlins and they were married in 1898. He was a painter and a decorator. Go figure. Lilian practiced medicine for fifteen years and then quietly retired, though she kept her medical license current much, much longer than that.
Unfortunately, you can’t read any article about Lilian that doesn’t mention her “connection” to an outlaw. In 1881, while Lilian was still in high school and a candy-striper, for all intents, Big Nose George Parrot was lynched for murdering a deputy. When no one claimed the body, Doctor Maghee stepped up. Curious to see if the bandit’s brain was somehow deformed, he dissected the man’s head, in the name of science. Lilian assisted with the autopsy and was given Big Nose George’s skull cap as a souvenir. She kept it for years, using it for everything from a door stop to a pipe holder.
Reporters loved to mention that story, as if it was her greatest achievement.
My guess is, there were a few other heads she would have liked to use as doorstops.
But she didn’t let the claws or the snipes get to her. Lilian never gave in, never backed down, never lost faith. I say thanks for paving the way!
Antonia Ford, a pretty, sassy spy for the Confederacy, didn’t mind batting her eyelashes at a Union soldier if it got her intelligence. She didn’t count on one man capturing her heart, though, or what their love would cost them.
Born into a wealthy family of loud-and-proud secessionists, Antonia loved her home in Fairfax Court House, VA. When Union troops occupied her town in mid-1861, she eagerly used her money, connections, and feminine wiles to gather intelligence. The officers were awed by her beauty and, clearly, oblivious to her brains. They talked and talked about the Union’s plans right in front of her. And Antonia turned right around and fed intelligence to the Confederacy.
When Union General Edward H. Stoughton was captured in his headquarters (one of the most famous raids of the Civil War), suspicion fell on Antonia, since she had spent some time with the officer. A counter-spy tricked Antonia into revealing the aid-de-camp commission given to her by J.E.B. Stuart himself. Antonia was arrested based on this document. Worse, however, smuggled papers were discovered in her possession. Pretty incriminating.
As fate would have it, she was arrested by 44-year-old Maj. Joseph Willard. Willard was struck right in the heart by the pretty, 24-year-old belle, but did his duty and delivered her to Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. Antonia was also drawn to the major and their romance blossomed…behind bars. Maj. Willard spent several months working at it, but was finally able to secure Antonia’s release. Their love, though, came at a high cost.
Antonia had to swear allegiance to the Union and promise that she would never spy again. Willard agreed to give up his commission and resigned from the Army. Apparently, neither of the two ever regretted these decisions. The couple married in 1864 and took over his family’s business, the Willard Hotel. Sadly, during their short marriage, they lost two babies, and Antonia continually battled health issues that stemmed from her incarceration. She passed away in 1871. Willard was heartbroken by her death and never remarried. Their hotel, now called the InterContinental, still stands on Pennsylvania Ave., mere shouting distance from the symbol of a government she once sought to topple.
Oh, the irony for a lady in defiance.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Sometimes, just existing is such a task.
A college roommate said that to me many years ago. For some reason, I thought of that when I researched the story of Charly Parkhurst. She carried an amazing, isolating secret for over thirty years…
Born in 1812, Charly lost her parents at an early age and wound up in an orphanage in New Hampshire. Either she escaped or they let her go, but when Charly was old enough to take care of herself, she skedaddled. Probably in her early teens. Somehow, she stumbled upon a job with Ebenezer Balch’s livery in Worcester. Working with horses would set her destiny. Charly became one of the Wild West’s most famous stagecoach drivers.
She worked for Balch for several years, then suddenly struck out for California at the height of the gold rush. Skilled, reliable, sober stagecoach drivers were in short supply so she pretty much walked into a job. And the woman proved her metal. She was robbed twice. The first time because she was unarmed, the second time because the robber chose the wrong victim. Charly shot him dead. Road conditions were abhorrent in Northern California. If Charly wasn’t worrying about bandits or renegade Indians, she was crossing swollen rivers, navigating rickety bridges, driving in ice and snow, and, of course, battling ornery horses. To her credit, she never lost a coach.
Charly liked whiskey and cigars. She could fight and cuss with the toughest of men and did. Small in stature, she was tough as an oak, but reclusive. Not many people got close to Charly. She was always picky about her privacy and lived alone her whole life.
Eventually, the demands of driving teams of horses up rugged mountain roads got to be too much for her. She “retired” and dabbled in ranching, and raising chickens. She even worked as a lumberjack for a spell.
Now all this is impressive, but there’s one other thing you need to know about Charly. She lived this remarkable life…as a man.
From approximately 1849 or so to 1879, Charlene Parkhurst’s gender was her deepest secret. The truth was only discovered upon her death. The town doctor, as well as the coroner, also believed that at some point in her life, Charly had given birth at least once. And baby items (either a dress or shoes—accounts differ) were found in a chest at her home.
So why did Charly live her life as a man? I find it interesting that she worked with Balch for several years, even moving with him to Rhode Island, then she suddenly struck out on her own. What if, at some point, Balch discovered that Charly was a woman? According to accounts from the time of Charly’s death, she was “well-endowed,” but hid her curves under baggy, pleated shirts. What if Balch didn’t like being lied to? What if he wasn’t a very nice man?
I realize that’s a heavy dose of speculation. But a small, petite orphan girl would have been easy prey. A young man on the other hand…
A gender-bender or a woman hiding from her past? Will we ever know? What do you think?
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Poverty and physical abuse are two things that will either make you or break you.
In the case of Phoebe Ann Moses, AKA, Annie Oakley, they made her a legend.
Born the sixth of seven children in 1860, Annie had a fairly happy home life in Ohio, until the death of her father when she was six. By all accounts, a compassionate child with wisdom beyond her years, little Annie thought it was her duty to help her mother all she could. Being the practical type, she picked up a rifle and learned to put food on the table.
But poverty was a steady stalker. In 1870, her mother, after being widowed a second time, made the desperate decision to send Annie and her sister to the Darke County Infirmary. Though she wasn’t there for long, Annie did get a little schooling, learned to sew, and helped take care of the younger orphan children. Unfortunately, however, her work ethic brought her to the attention of a local farm family. She was “bound out” to them for the promise of fifty cents a week and some education. She never saw either and the family worked her like a slave. Annie rose before daylight and went to bed well after dark. She did hard, heavy farm hand work as well as whatever other tasks the lady of the house felt like handing off.
Annie was physically and verbally abused, especially by the wife. In her memoirs, Annie referred to the family as “wolves”, but never named them. She was too classy for that. And perhaps she realized that, in an odd way, they’d done her a favor.
In ’72, Annie’s mother re-married and the family was re-united. Determined to stay out of the orphanage, Annie again picked up her gun and learned to shoot it with frightening, almost unnatural, accuracy. It was said she could shoot the head off a pheasant at over hundred yards and kill turkeys using her rifle instead of a shotgun. Patrons at the local restaurants appreciated the fact that they didn’t have to pick buckshot out of their white meat. The buzz on Annie’s uncanny skill with a gun spread. She soon regularly supplied several hotels and restaurants with fresh meat. The money paid off her mother’s farm by the time Annie was 15.
And, thus, it was this unflinching desire to never be hungry again (apologies, Scarlett) that set the course for our heroine to become an honest-to-God Western Legend.
Sharpshooter Frank Butler had the standing offer that he would shoot against any local from the towns where he was performing. Of course, all bets were welcome. Imagine Butler’s surprise when a Cincinnati hotel owner paraded five-foot-tall, pretty, petite little Annie out for the competition. She was barely taller than her rifle.
The two squared off and commenced to shooting. Butler missed on his 25th shot. She didn’t. He lost the match, $100 to the hotel owner, and his heart to Annie. She and Butler would spend the next fifty-one years together, shooting in Wild West Shows, performing for ranch hands and royalty, and living a darn good life.
Best of all, Annie had the last laugh on that farm family from Ohio.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton