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“Edmonds''s gender-bending Civil War experiences are well worth checking out.”—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist
— Margaret Flanagan
“Edmonds''s gender-bending Civil War experiences are well worth checking out.”—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist
— Margaret Flanagan
December is bitterly cold on the granite-strewn shores of Magaguadavic Lake, and the night that Sarah Emma Edmondson was born was no exception. The lake was a three-foot sheet of ice; the rocky ground was covered in hard-packed snow. The vast, dense forest of hemlock and white pine surrounding the lake was dark and foreboding. But as cold and inhospitable as it was outside, a different, icier chill permeated the Edmondsons' small farmhouse the night that Betsy Edmondson gave birth to her sixth child, and fifth girl. Betsy's husband, Isaac, a stern and taciturn Scot, had been hoping for a son, as most farmers in New Brunswick did. It was hard work to carve a farm out of this remote wilderness, harder still to work the unforgiving land and to keep the forest at bay. It was a part of the world attractive only to tough, resourceful, and independent people, most of whom were there because, and only because, it afforded them the chance to work for themselves. What hired help could be found sought out one of the many logging camps along the Saint James or Miramichi rivers, where pay was better than most farmers could afford. The only way to ensure a decent workforce was to raise it yourself.
The four older sisters did what they could to help, but for Isaac, it was never enough. To make matters worse, Emma's only brother, Thomas, was an epileptic, and therefore of no use at all in Isaac's eyes. Any farmer in his position would have been disappointed at the arrival of yet another girl. But Isaac's reaction went well beyond annoyance. Isaac was prone to violent rages,a tendency that had increased with the birth of each child, but always he held out hope that God would grant him healthy sons one day. But this time was different. Betsy was now well into her thirties and not strong to begin with. Years of childbearing had taken their toll, and this baby would likely be — and in fact was — her last. As that realization dawned on Isaac that December night, his periodic rage curdled into a permanent, poisonous anger that would seethe within him for the rest of his life.
Emma, as the baby girl was called, could not immediately understand how unhappy a home she had joined, but years later, she would say that she believed that some of the despair and anger that permeated that house had seeped into her veins through her mother's milk. "I think I was born into this world with some dormant antagonism toward man. I hope I have outgrown it measurably, but my infant soul was impressed with a sense of my mother's wrongs before I ever saw the light, and I probably drew from her breast with my daily food my love of independence and hatred of male tyranny."
Life on the shores of Magaguadavic Lake was never easy, but it was not always bleak; for brief golden moments each year, it was paradise. In the spring and autumn, the ill-humored, ice-covered forests of winter were transformed into an inviting, beautiful, magical realm. The woods were full of game — whitetail deer, moose, and black bear — and riotous color, and valuable hardwoods and other timber. When the ice finally melted, the lake became a playground. The huge granite boulders that laced the shoreline were perfect for climbing and hiding, and here and there tiny spits of sand formed private, pristine beaches. The water was cold even in the summer, but the few hardy children who grew up on its shores became accustomed to it. And fishing — for landlocked salmon, and bass, and trout — was almost always rewarding.
Even at the Edmondson farm, there were some perfect summer days, when the sun was shining, the winds were gentle, and loons sang their eerily beautiful songs to one another. On those rare days, Isaac's hard mood would soften. If it happened to be washing day, Betsy would make a picnic for the family to eat on the edge of the lake, and the children would laugh and swim and play while the clothes dried on lines strung between the trees. But such days were few and far between. Mostly, there was constant work. There were potatoes to plant and harvest, livestock to be cared for, cows to be milked, washing and cooking and cleaning to be done, repairs to be made on the barn and house and fences.
The one thing in which Betsy had her way was her insistence that her children all receive an education. When she was old enough, Emma accompanied her siblings to the one-room parish schoolhouse a few miles east on the road to Harvey. Emma loved it. She was a bright and eager student, with a phenomenal memory, and an avid reader all her life. At home, she read the Bible, for want of other material, and early on she committed large passages to memory. Her mother was deeply religious, and the family passed many of the long winter nights around the fire reading aloud from the Bible.
When there was time to play, there were few friends to play with, and her sisters were too much older to be interested in the same games that Emma was. She loved the outdoors, and sometimes played with Thomas, but his physical limitations meant that much of the time she played by herself. By the time she was ten, she could ride a horse better than most boys, and hunted and fished with great skill. She could handle a canoe beautifully, and when time and weather permitted, she was often out on the lake, watching the bald eagles build their nests and the beavers prepare their lodges for the coming winter.
As Emma grew older, she developed a wild, reckless streak; she was the one who broke the wild colts, or volunteered to climb to the highest point on the barn roof when it needed fixing. Family legend has it that she was so heedless of her own safety that one Sunday, Betsy told the parish priest, an old Scot, that she was afraid her daughter would meet an untimely end. But the old priest was sanguine. Emma often recalled hearing Betsy repeat his reply, "It is an auld saying, an' I believe a true one. A wean that's born to be hung 'll never be drooned."
Despite her toughness, Emma was strikingly compassionate and gentle with anything, or anyone, weaker than she was. Above all, she was intensely protective of Thomas, who, although several years older, was frail, and often teased and bullied by other boys, as well as by his father. Thomas apparently accepted his fate with almost beatific tolerance, but Emma seethed with anger, and would frequently come fiercely to his defense. She also tried to protect her mother from her father's frequent rages, but to little avail, other than to leave Emma with a deep anger that spilled over, in her young mind, to his entire gender. Looking back, Emma recalled that "in our family the women were not sheltered but enslaved; hence I naturally grew up to think of man as the implacable enemy for my sex. I had not an atom of faith in any one of them," except of course her dear Thomas. "If occasionally I met one who seemed a little better than others, I set him down in my mind as a wolf in sheep's clothing, and probably less worthy of trust than the rest."
On the whole, life on the Edmondson farm was fairly routine. Days often followed days spent much like the ones before, and nights were even more similar. So Emma would always remember one evening, when she was about thirteen, that a peddler knocked on the door. Peddlers were not uncommon; stores were few and far between, and peddlers were the only source of many goods that the family could not make or grow themselves. But it was unusually late — the sky was nearly dark — and the woods were not safe at night. Betsy, ever hospitable, offered the man a bed for the night. To repay the kindness, as he was leaving the next morning, the man rummaged about in his wagon, and emerged with a small book, which he handed to Emma as a gift. It was a novel, the first novel Emma had ever seen; even if the family had a way to buy such luxuries, Isaac would never have allowed it.
Emma was stunned, and thrilled. She had not received many gifts in her life, certainly none from a stranger. Unable to wait until the evening to examine it, she slipped it into the pocket of her skirt before she and her sisters headed out for a full day of planting potatoes. When they were far enough away from the house to avoid being seen, Emma triumphantly produced the book, to her sisters' amazement and delight. At first, they took turns reading it aloud to take their minds off their work. But soon they were so mesmerized by the story that all four of them flopped down in the warm dirt, and listened intently to the story. Few potatoes were planted that day.
The book was called Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, by Maturin Ballou, a well-known writer of popular fiction. It was the melodramatic story of a young New England girl in the eighteenth century, whose lover, William Lovell, was a sea captain. One day, he was the victim of a mutiny, and taken prisoner in the Caribbean. To rescue him, young Fanny cut off her curls, put on breeches, and went to sea. Eventually, after a series of exciting adventures, in which young Fanny became a feared pirate, she rescued her lover and lived happily ever after.
For Emma's sisters the story was a welcome diversion from a dull task. But for Emma, it was something else entirely. Emma saw herself in Fanny, whom the author described as "a noble looking girl" but not a delicate "belle...ready to faint at the first sight of a reptile." Instead, just like Emma, Fanny could ride horses, shoot straight, and "do almost any brave and useful act." It was a revelation to Emma, almost as if the author knew her and was speaking directly to her. Later, Emma would remember that day as "the most wonderful day" in her life. "I felt as if an angel had touched me with a live coal from off the altar. All the latent energy of my nature was aroused, and each exploit of the heroine thrilled me to my finger tips. I went home that night with the problem of my life solved. I felt equal to any emergency. I was emancipated! And I could never again be a slave. When I read where Fanny cut off her brown curls, and donned the blue jacket, and stepped into the freedom and glorious independence of masculinity, I threw up my old straw hat and shouted." But her heroine did have one flaw. "The only drawback in my mind," Emma would recall later, "was this: She went to rescue an imprisoned lover, and I pitied her that she was only a poor love-sick girl, after all, like too many I had known, and I regretted that she had no higher ambition than running after a man. Perhaps later on in life, I had more charity, and gave her a credit mark for rescuing anybody — even a lover." Still, the story of Fanny Campbell gave Emma something to dream about. "From that time forth I never ceased planning escape, although it was years before I accomplished it."
When Emma was seventeen, her father announced that she was to be married to an elderly, newly widowed neighbor. Emma initially agreed to the marriage, but only reluctantly, and the more she thought about the dreary life that stretched in front of her — a life like her mother's and that of her two oldest sisters, who had by then married and were now mothers themselves — the more she realized that she could not go through with it. Years later, she would explain that "very early in life I was forced to the conclusion, from close observation and bitter experience, that matrimony was not a safe investment for me." The time had come, she concluded, to put into action the plan that Fanny Campbell had first planted in her reckless, restless mind.
There are several family versions of how Emma finally put her plan into action, but all that is known for certain is that at some point in her seventeenth year, she left home, as she put it, "unceremoniously, for parts unknown." The most widely credited story is that she escaped home with the help of Betsy and Betsy's friend Annie Moffit, who lived in Salisbury, in Westmorland County. According to this version, Annie came to visit relatives in the neighboring village of Harvey, and stopped in to see her friend soon after Betsy learned that Isaac had decided to marry Emma off. Betsy, hoping to spare her youngest child the kind of life she had known herself, prevailed upon Annie to take the girl back to Salisbury with her. And so, one day, presumably while Isaac was working in the fields, Emma stowed away in the back of Annie's carriage.
Betsy probably paid dearly for her role in her daughter's escape. The most credible version of what Emma did when she arrived in Salisbury, passed down from one generation to the next, is that Emma worked for a time in Annie's millinery shop, and then later moved to the even larger town of Moncton with Henriette Perrigo, the daughter of one of Annie's friends, to open her own hat shop. Emma lived and worked in Moncton for several months, possibly as long as a year, but was always fearful that her father would track her down and bring her back to Magaguadavic.
All of her life, she had dreamed of becoming a foreign missionary, a career that appealed to both her deep faith and her sense of adventure. But before she could pursue that idea, something else caught her eye: an advertisement from a publishing house seeking traveling book salesmen for subscription publications. Subscription publishing, a growing industry in cities like Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, was a kind of bastard child of the proper publishing trade in New York. Instead of publishing a predetermined number of books, and selling them in bookstores in larger cities, subscription publishers sent salesmen out to smaller towns and rural areas to take orders based on samples, and printed copies to fill the orders. Most prestigious authors still favored the New York trade, which looked down its nose at subscription publishers for generally offering sentimental fiction on cheap paper with gaudy covers. But as American demographics shifted away from the high population areas on the East Coast, subscription publishing satisfied the growing demands of a highly literate and widely dispersed population.
As the subscription publishing industry boomed, more and more salesmen were needed to cover an ever-widening territory, and publishers began running advertisements in local newspapers. One illustrative advertisement ran in a variety of New Brunswick periodicals at the time Emma was most likely living in Moncton.
Book agents wanted in New Brunswick to canvas for New Pictoral, Standard, and Historical, and Religious works...The subscriber publishes a large number of most valuable books, very popular and of such a moral and religious influence that while good men may safely engage in their circulation they will confer a public BENEFIT and receive a FAIR COMPENSATION for their labour. To persons of enterprise and tact this business offers an opportunity for profitable enjoyment seldom to be met with. There is not a town in British North America where a right, honest and well-disposed person can fail selling from 50 to 200 volumes according to the population. Persons wishing to engage in their sale will receive promptly by mail a circular containing full particulars, with Directions to persons disposed to act as Agents, together with the terms on which they will be furnished by addressing the subscriber postpaid.
This was just the kind of opportunity she had been hoping for. It would allow her to travel frequently, making it harder for Isaac to track her down, and it promised adventure, of a sort. It required no family connections or investment of capital, and, above all, it offered the chance to make more money than she had ever dreamed of. The one drawback, of course, was that traveling book salesmen had to be men. For some women, this would have been too high a hurdle to clear, but to Emma, always carrying the image of Fanny Campbell in her mind, the problem was easily solved. She simply wrote to a company in Hartford under the name of Franklin Thompson, and, while she was waiting for the materials to arrive, she gathered together a suitable disguise. Before "going over to the enemy," she procured a suit of men's clothing, and, once the canvassing materials arrived, she set about to transform herself, as her heroine, Fanny Campbell, had done. She cut her long thick hair in a classic man's haircut that accentuated her dark, intelligent eyes, her high cheekbones, and her rather squarish jaw. Emma's features, which were slightly too strong to be classically beautiful — as a woman she was more what was then called "handsome" than delicate — were well suited to her disguise. Her mouth was the most feminine feature of her face, with lips that were a bit softer and fuller than the average man's. Her body type — slim, muscular, and, at five feet, six inches, well within the average male height range at the time — also served her well. In all probability she did not have to bind her bosom — she was only seventeen, and had a naturally boyish, narrow-hipped figure. When she turned to look at herself in the mirror, she would have been pleased with the success of her transformation.
But changing her appearance was the easy part. The trick would be to act the part as well. Still, even this was easier for Emma than it would have been for many young women. Growing up as a farm girl in remote Magaguadavic meant that she had not been as bothered about learning the elaborate ins and outs of how ladies move and sit as most city girls would have been. She was used to walking through the forests and across the fields in long, loping athletic strides, and to riding astride rather than sidesaddle, which would have been viewed as a silly affectation on a working farm. And Emma had an unusual gift for mimicry. Once she put her mind to it, it would not have taken her long to pick up the tiny but telltale mannerisms she needed to convince the world she was male.
However, it was, technically, illegal to impersonate a man under British law at the time; it was viewed as an infringement on the rights of the "Lords of Creation." Such laws were rarely, if ever, enforced, and there was little danger of being sent to prison if she was discovered. The worst that could happen would be that she would be sent home to Isaac in disgrace, which, in Emma's mind, was probably worse than jail. But abandoning her identity also meant plunging herself into a world of isolation, where the truth could never be revealed, and even friends were, by necessity, kept at arm's length. It demanded an enormously high level of self-reliance, an ability to keep one's own counsel, and a willingness to forgo the intimacy with another person that only honesty can produce. It meant being willing to live a lie, with all the attendant moral and practical burdens that would entail. Above all, it meant being alone, even when she was not. But being alone was something Emma was used to, from the many solitary hours in the woods and on the lake as a child. In her excitement and nervousness, she was likely more focused on the challenge of pulling off her masquerade than on the consequences.
As Emma walked out into the streets for the first time in her new guise, carrying her valise filled with sample books and order forms, she must have been overcome with a sense of physical freedom. She undoubtedly had worn pants on the farm, at least occasionally, but never in public, and certainly not since living in town. At the time, a well-dressed woman's ensemble could weigh as much as fifteen pounds, including petticoats, a corset stiffened with thin strips of whalebone, wire hoops, and yards and yards of fabric. Maneuvering in such dresses was so complicated that instructions had to be given. The best-selling Ladies' Guide to Perfect Gentility in Manners, Dress, and Conversation, published in 1854, included admonitions against bad breath ("The purity of the breath is of the greatest consequence; what, indeed, could be so afflicting to one of the gentle sex as impurity in this respect?"), tips for avoiding freckles ("Green is the only color which should be worn as a summer veil"), and guidelines on how to manage long skirts ("When tripping over the pavement, a lady should gracefully raise her dress a little above her ankle. With the right hand, she should hold together the folds of her gown, and draw them towards the right side. To raise the dress on both sides, and with both hands, is vulgar. This ungraceful practice can only be tolerated for a moment, when the mud is very deep"). Emma may not have worn costumes as elaborate as those worn by the most fashionable women of her time, but she still would have been accustomed to tight bodices, and heavy full skirts that trailed on the ground and were prone to catching on all sorts of impediments.
Worse, the physical limitations imposed by the favored style of women's clothing reflected the limitations imposed on their behavior, and how society expected them to act. What women could do, what they were in fact expected to do, was to devote themselves to their families. An editorial in Harper's New Monthly, published in 1854, captured the popular concept of the ideal woman:
The true Woman, for whose ambition a husband's love and her children's adoration are sufficient, who applies her military instincts to the discipline of her household, and whose legislative faculties exercise themselves in making laws for her nursery; whose intellect has field enough in communion with her husband, and whose heart asks no other honors than his love and admiration; a woman who does not think it a weakness to attend to her toilette, and who does not disdain to be beautiful; who believes in the virtue of glossy hair and well-fitting gowns, and who eschews rents and raveled edges, slipshod shoes, and audacious make-ups; a woman who speaks low and who does not speak much; who is patient and gentle and intellectual and industrious; who loves more than she reasons, and yet does not love blindly; who never scolds, and rarely argues, but who rebukes with a caress, and adjusts with a smile: a woman who is the wife we all have dreamt of once in our lives, and who is the mother we still worship in the backward distance of the past: such a woman as this does more for human nature, and more for woman's cause, than all the sea-captains, judges, barristers, and members of parliament put together — God-given and God-blessed as she is!
This version of the feminine ideal was of no interest to Emma. "Although I was favored with more than one touching declaration of undying love, I greatly preferred the privilege of earning my own bread and butter," she later explained. But Emma was probably too nervous to savor her newfound freedom for long. She was terrified that she would be recognized immediately as a girl. Not at all sure that her disguise would work at close range, she left the city as quickly as she could, and took to the woods lining the road. All day, she stayed out of sight, certain that the first person she met would see through her fraud. Finally, at twilight, when the light was kinder, she ventured out of the protection of the forest and approached a nearby farmhouse. Summoning all her nerve, she knocked tentatively on the door. With much relief, Emma was greeted with "so much respect and kindness that I concluded I must be quite a gentleman."
From that night on, Emma discovered that not only could she pass herself off as a young man, but that she was happy doing it. Life as the "enemy" was not too bad. She relished the freedom it gave her to go where she wanted, do what she wanted, earn what she could, without the nagging restraints society placed on unattached women.
Emma proved to be a born salesman. For the next year, she traveled throughout New Brunswick and New England, taking orders for Bibles and other books, relaying them to the publishing company, and then delivering the books when they were ready. "Such success as I met with deserves to be recorded in history...The publishing company told me that they had employed agents for thirty years, and they never had employed one that could outsell me. I made money, dressed well, owned and drove a fine horse and buggy — silver mounted harness and all the paraphernalia of a nice turnout."
At some point during that year, she went home to see her mother. Although the story might have been one of her many embellishments, it survived as family lore for generations. According to Emma, she went home one day in the fall of 1859, when her father was out. Her mother did not recognize her at first, although her sister Frances instantly did. Thomas eventually did, too, tipped off by the fact that the family animals seemed strangely calm despite the presence of a "stranger." Emma was finally able to convince her mother that she was her youngest child, and the four of them spent a happy hour or so before Emma began to worry that it was coming close to the time that her father might walk through the door. After a last, long hug for her mother, she took her leave. Thomas walked her to the train depot at Magaguadavic Siding, several miles away. On the way, Emma borrowed Thomas's gun, and shot down six partridges for him to bring home for supper, presumably much to the surprise of Isaac; he did not generally think much of Thomas's hunting skills.
Emma returned to her bookselling, and continued to prosper, for several more months. But sometime in the winter of 1859, something that Emma only referred to later as a "disaster" caused her to lose all of her money and possessions, with the exception of one sample Bible and a gold pocket watch. Instead of going home, however, she headed for Hartford, then the subscription publishing capital of America, to start anew. In recalling that trip years later, Emma said:
I started for the United States, in mid winter, snow three feet deep in New Brunswick. In that way I performed the journey from Fredericton, New Brunswick, with the exceptions of a few miles' ride occasionally. Oh! I could tell you a tale of suffering and hardships and weariness endured on that journey...I reached Hartford in a most forlorn condition. A stranger in a strange country — a fit subject for a hospital — without money and without friends.
Whether Emma did in fact walk all the way to Hartford from New Brunswick — a distance of nearly four hundred miles — in the middle of the winter is questionable. All her life, her taste for drama would flavor her recollections. More probable is that she walked part of the way, and went either by ferry, coach, or horseback the rest. One way or another, she did arrive there in the early weeks of 1860, and it was true enough that she had nothing going for her but her own wits, and the address of the publishing house. Before she could present herself there, she needed to recuperate from her trip. "I went to a hotel just as if I had plenty of money, and rested several days before presenting myself to the publishers. My feet were badly frost-bitten and my boots literally worn out, and my last suit of clothes were rather the worse for wear, and my linen — well, it is hardly worth speaking of." After several days, she finally felt well enough to venture out of her room. Taking her gold watch and chain, the one thing of value she still possessed, she walked into the bustling, jangling streets and found a pawnshop. With the money, Emma bought a new suit of clothes, as well as new boots. Feeling more presentable, she made her way to 155 Asylum Street, the office of W. S. Williams & Co.
Inside the narrow row house, three distinguished, prosperous-looking men turned to size up their visitor. Emma steeled her nerves, and, "with as gentlemanly address as I could get up, I introduced myself to the publishers, and almost in the same breath I asked them whether they had any use for a boy who had neither friends nor money, but who was hard to beat at selling books." The men looked at her for a moment, and then, much to Emma's relief, one of them — whom she soon learned was Mr. A. M. Hurlbert — leaned back and laughed a deep, hearty laugh. "I told them they would have to take me on trial, as I had no security to give them." Another of the men, Mr. Scranton, replied, "We'll take your face for it." When the jolly Mr. Hurlbert discovered that Emma was staying in a nearby hotel, he promptly invited him to dinner, an invitation that Emma readily accepted. Mr. Hurlbert led his visitor up the street to a well-appointed row house at 285 Asylum. There he jovially introduced Emma to his family as "a boy who was hard to beat on selling books." Mr. Hurlbert's wife was as welcoming as her husband, and after a warm, satisfying meal, they treated Emma to a leisurely carriage ride around the city. Emma was touched by the warm reception. "The kindness I received that day was worth a thousand dollars to me. I have never forgotten it, and I hope they have never had reason to regret it." It must have felt good to sit and laugh, to be treated as one of the family, for the first time in a long time.
Several days later, with a $50 advance and a valise full of samples, Emma boarded the ferry for Halifax, Nova Scotia — her first assignment for W. S. Williams & Co. As the ferry headed out into the cold vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, Emma stood at the railing, relishing her independence. "Oh, how manly I felt," she recalled, "and what pride I took in proving to them that their confidence in me was not misplaced."
Halifax, Nova Scotia, was in the midst of a growth spurt when Emma arrived in February 1860. Swollen with recent immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, Halifax's economy, already thriving from its trade with New England and its shipbuilding industry, was exploding. Like New Brunswick, the population in Nova Scotia was highly literate and relatively isolated — a perfect place for selling books. Emma did even better in her nine months in Nova Scotia than she had in New Brunswick the year before. It did not take her long to earn back her advance, and much more besides. Soon Emma was staying in the best hotels in Halifax, Yarmouth, and Digby, once again dressing well and traveling in elegant style. But money for its own sake was not something Emma craved, and in a pattern that she would continually repeat, she gave most of her earnings away. That year, Emma "gave away more money to benevolent societies, etc., than in all the rest of my life." She also dated a bit, to keep up appearances, as well as for the companionship. In those Victorian days, dating involved well-chaperoned outings that involved nothing more intimate than witty conversation, something the theatrical and imaginative Emma excelled at. But sometimes these outings led to expectations that "Frank Thompson" could not fulfill. Many years later, she recalled that "I came near marrying a pretty little girl who was bound that I should not leave Nova Scotia without her." If Emma ever appreciated the irony of someone who once railed against men as, at best, wolves in sheep's clothing blithely leaving broken hearts in her wake, she left no record of it.
Emma stayed in Nova Scotia for nine months. When she finally returned to Hartford in November, she had earned over $900, a staggering sum of money for a farm girl from Magaguadavic.
Copyright © 2005 by Laura Leedy Gansler
Posted November 13, 2009
I read this book and then wrote a book review of it. It was very interesting and easy to read. I am not a fan of the gorry details of the battles of the Civil War but this book made me interested. It provided great insight into the Civil War through a womans eyes. Definitely reccommend!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.