Harriet Jacobs and the amazing story of her escape from slavery

On a reHarriet Jacobscent trip to New Orleans, I made my second visit in as many years to the Whitney Plantation (http://whitneyplantation.com/) and once again felt compelled to read as many true accounts of slavery as I possibly could. That same day, on a random trip into a cute little second-hand bookstore, I came across the perfect one – Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. And I was hooked.

The book is an account of a former slave’s life under the rigid slavery laws of North Carolina in the 1800s. Born in Edenton, NC in 1813, Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery. She had some white blood in her, and her maternal grandmother (who became her closest family member when she was orphaned) was half-white and had been freed from slavery, and even owned her own house (something slaves were not permitted to do).

Harriet bounced around through various ‘owners’ in her childhood – some kind, some not so. When her owner began making sexual advances towards her as a teenager, coupled with refusing her permission to marry the man she love, she retaliated, becoming pregnant by a local white man and fathering two mixed-race children with him while still in her teens. But soon Harriet’s domestic situation became unbearable, prompting her to make her escape (not seeing her children for many years). She disappeared and living in horrifically isolated, solitary conditions before escaping to the North in 1842, settling in New York where slaves were free.

Reunited with her children years later, Jacobs worked as a nursemaid in New York before beginning a lifelong friendship with the Quaker reformer Amy Post. Upon being officially granted her freedom upon the death of her owner, Harriet was encouraged by Post to write an account of her experiences as a slave – and Incidents was published in 1861.

Harriet’s story is captivating – both in terms of her heroic escape from a life of slavery but also in terms of her stoicism and an insight into how female slaves had to cope with sexual advances among everything else attached to being in slavery. It was largely forgotten about for over 100 years, before being discovered during the civil rights movement.

A highly recommended read: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Incidents-Slave-Dover-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486419312

 

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The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

I recently stumbled across a reference to Dorothy Lawrence while doing some research into the Great War. I was astounded by her story, and when I mentioned her name to a few friends, I was met with blank stats. Clearly, Dorothy Lawrence is one of the #AmazingWomenInHistory who needs to be remembered, not forgotten.

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Dorothy Lawrence in military uniform. I DO NOT OWN THE IMAGE.

Dorothy was born in Britain in 1896. Determined to be a journalist, at a young age she had some articles published in The Times. When war broke out, she pestered many people on Fleet Street with the hope of becoming a war reporter. When her calls went unnoticed, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Travelling to France in 1915, aged just 21, she applied to become an employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. When her application was rejected,  she decided to enter the war zone as a freelance war correspondent.

However she was arrested by French Police in Senlis, and ordered to leave. Spending the night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, she returned to Paris where she concluded that only in disguise could she get the story that she wanted to write. “I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish.”

Determined, Dorothy befriended two British Army soldiers in a Parisien café, and persuaded them to smuggle her khaki uniform, piece by piece, within their washing; ten men eventually shared in this exploit, later referred to in her book as “Khaki accomplices.”

Dorothy then began the process of transforming herself into a male soldier, by flattening her figure with a homemade corset, using sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders, and with the help of two Scottish military policemen to cut her long, brown hair in a short military style. She used a disinfectant called Condy’s Fluid to darken her complexion, razored the pale skin of her cheeks to give herself a shaving rash, and finally added a shoe-polish tan. Lastly, she persuaded her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march. She got her hands on forged identity papers, and headed for the frontline, as Private Denis Smith, 1st battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment.  

After being interrogated as a spy, she was declared a prisoner of war, and taken cross country to Calais and was unknowingly questioned about being a prostitute (or ‘camp follower’) as the term was.Targeting the British sector of the Somme, she set out by bicycle. On her way towards Albert, Somme, she met Lancashire coal-miner turned British Expeditionary Force (BEF) tunnel-digging sapper Tom Dunn, who offered to assist her. Fearing for the safety of a lone woman amongst female-companionship starved soldiers, Dunn found Lawrence an abandoned cottage in Senlis Forest to sleep in and she worked as a sapper (a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc.) with the 179 Tunnelling Company. However after ten days in horrible conditions, a few bouts of chills and fainting, and with concern that if she needed medical attention her true gender would be discovered, Dorothy presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who placed her under military arrest.

The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security. Fearful of more women taking on main roles during the war if Dorothy’s story got out, Dorothy was made sign an affidavit swearing that she would not write about her experiences. Sent back to London, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, and only published an account of her experiences after the war, which was still heavily censored by the War Office.

With no income and no credibility as a journalist, by 1925 her increasingly erratic behaviour was brought to the attention of the authorities. After confiding to a doctor that she had been raped in her teenage years by her church guardian, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and later deemed insane. Committed first to the London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell in March 1925, she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet.

Dorothy Lawrence died in 1964. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery, where today the site of her plot is no longer clear.

Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street, and an eminent investor

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I recently read Charles Stack’s biography of Henrietta Howland Robinson Green, the American businesswoman and financier nicknamed as the “Witch of Wall Street”, who was one of the richest women in America during the Gilded Age, one of the few women on Wall Street. The book is entitled ‘Hetty Green: The Genius and Madness of America’s first female tycoon’, and both descriptions of her in the title are hugely appropriate.

Born in 1834, Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Green (nee Howland Robinson) was born into a rich whaling family in Massachusetts. The only surviving child of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland, Hetty honed her craft reading the financial papers to her maternal grandfather and her father. At age 13, she became the family bookkeeper and was incredibly knowledgeable in financial affairs.

When Hetty was 26, her mother died, leaving her daughter $8,000 dollars (nearly $200,000 today’s money). But just a few short years later, Hetty would become embroiled in a bitter battle to inherit her mother’s sister’s fortune, which would ensure that all inheritance from her grandfather’s company would go to her.

From her mother’s death, Hetty was determined to ensure every penny of Aunt Sylvia’s fortune went to her. But the invalided Aunt Sylvia, whose relied on the care of servants and health professionals, had other ideas. Sylvia was aware of her niece’s greediness, and temper, and wanted to be sure that all the people who had given their lives to make hers a bit better were remembered. Hetty, knowing this, hastened to her aunt’s home to discourage Aunt Sylvia from bequeathing any money to anyone escape her, Hetty. When Hetty realised Aunt Sylvia’s plans to leave money with her servants, Hetty got so angry she pushed one of them down the stairs. Aunt Sylvia eventually relented and signed a will in Hetty’s presence, bequeathing her entire fortune to her niece.

Hetty was horrified to learn that Sylvia had created a new will after signing the aforementioned with Hetty, leaving most of her $2 million estate (nearly $31 million) to charity. Hetty challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will that would have bequeathed all of her aunt’s fortune to her. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics. The court ultimately decided that the earlier will produced by Hetty was a forgery, although she was awarded $600,000 after five years of legal battles.

In 1865, Edward Robinson died, leaving Hetty approximately $5 million (equivalent to $77,293,000 in 2015) which included a $4 million trust fund that drew annual earnings, something she wasn’t pleased about.

Two years after her father’s death, at the age of 33, Hetty married 44 year-old Edward Henry Green, a Vermont businessman who had lived in Asia for several years making his fortune. Hetty requested that Edward sign a prenuptial agreement before the wedding, renouncing all his rights to her money. The couple soon fled to London, probably to get away from the hype created by the Robinson vs. Mandell case. They spent seven years living in the Langham Hotel off Regent Street, during which time Hetty bore two children – Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green (known as Sylvia).

When her children were small, Hetty took to being a mother while her husband pursued investments. However, she soon wanted to make use of her astonishing fortune, and formulated her investment strategy which she stuck to all her life. She made conservative investments, always had substantial cash reserves, and never lost her cool. She began by investing in greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought in majorly. She claimed to has amassed a fortune of $1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone.

The family returned to the US in the mid 1870s, settling in Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Hetty spent a few years living her with the reputation of an eccentric. She famously quarrelled with all her in laws, servants and neighbours, and was noted for her stinginess in spite of her growing fortune.

The largest investor in the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, Hetty was horrified when the bank collapsed, in 1885 and hastened to New York. She soon learned that the bank’s greatest debtor was none other than her husband, Edward Green. The firm’s management had surreptitiously used her wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Emphasizing that their finances were separate, Green withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank of New York. Enraged by his dealings, she and Edward would never live together again (although there is evidence that they did reconcile in later years).

Throughout her life, Hetty had a reputation for her stingyness – an ironic fact considering her enormous wealth. While most Wall Street tycoons took a coach in the mornings, Hetty opted to walk. She could have afforded numerous houses in the most affluent parts of New York, a mere stone’s throw to Wall Street, but instead she spent most of her later years in a simple apartment across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey (this was possibly also to avoid having a permanent residence that would bring her to the attention of any tax officials).

One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. Perhaps most interesting, instead of enjoying the new restaurants that were springing up in Downtown New York, Hetty’s lunch while she worked at a Wall Street bank (because she didn’t want to pay rent for her own office) in New York consisted of oatmeal cooked in a big vat on radiator. Her stingyness, combined with her dour dress-habits and austere personality would nickname her ‘The Witch of Wall Street’.

But for all her eccentricity, Hetty was a phenomenally successful businesswoman. While she often dealt in real estate, lending and mines, her main investments were to be in railroads during a golden era of railroad building across America. As soon as Ned became old enough, she stationed in him in Texas, where he learned the tricks of the trade while managing their railroad investments.

The City of New York came to Green for loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907. She would travel thousands of miles alone—in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted—to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Edward and Hetty never lived as husband and wife after the John J. Cisco debacle, but there is evidence that they reconciled in later years. Hetty nursed Edward for a few months until his death in 1902.

Hetty was notoriously disapproving of all of Sylvia’s suitors, believing them to just be after her fortune. When Sylvia was in her late 30s, Hetty finally agreed for her daughter to marry Matthew Astor Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune. With $2 million of his own, it was enough to convince Hetty that he wasn’t just a gold-digger. Nonetheless, she compelled him to sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune.

Hetty Green died aged 81 at her son’s New York City home. She earned the title of ‘World’s Greatest Miser’ in the Guinness Book of Records, but left an estimated net work of somewhere between $100 and $200 million, equivalent to around $2-4 billion in today’s money.She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her husband. She had converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith (from her Quakerism) so that she could be interred with him.

You can buy Charles Stack’s biography of Hetty Green here.