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One Thousand White Women
The Journals of May Dodd
By Jim Fergus
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1998 Jim Fergus
All rights reserved.
THE JOURNALS OF MAY DODD
A Train Bound for Glory
"Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called 'civilized' people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages."
(from the journals of May Dodd)
[NOTE: The following entry, undated, appears on the first page of the first notebook of May Dodd's journal.]
I leave this record for my dear children, Hortense and William, in the event that they never see their loving mother again and so that they might one day know the truth of my unjust incarceration, my escape from Hell, and into whatever is to come in these pages ...
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."
Excerpted from One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus. Copyright © 1998 Jim Fergus. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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