“The Meserve-Kunhardt Collection is one of the oldest private collections of Victorian photography in the United States. It has long been famous as a rich mine of Civil War images and portraits of Abraham Lincoln. What is less well known is that while Frederick Hill Meserve (1865-1962) gathered rare photos of American men from the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, he also collected thousands of female portraits.
'This Mad, Wicked Folly' is the first exhibit to reveal the breadth and depth of Meserve’s collection of rare photographs of women. In 2002, I was invited to tour collection. I couldn’t help noticing rows of albums, on the lower shelves, whose labels all began with the letter “W.” When I finally asked what they contained, I was told they were “just the women”; their turn would come later, alphabetically, after the men, who filled albums A-Z. I could not bear to imagine thousands of American women languishing in obscurity so I appealed to Peter Kunhardt Sr. who readily gave me permission to archive the photos in the W albums and restore them to their rightful place in the collection.
Then in 2012, I was invited to curate an exhibit that would tell the stories of these 19th century women. The photos here, most of them unique to the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection, open the door to astonishing histories, some of which are narrated here for the first time. Among these prim and dignified ladies are spies, surgeons, entrepreneurs, theatrical producers, newspaper publishers, poisoners, and male impersonators. From giantesses to sculptresses and seamstresses, all these remarkable sitters – even those shackled by racism, poverty, lack of education, homophobia, or physical disabilities – succeeded in battling overwhelming sexism to make their visions (however mad or wicked) a reality.”
-Kathryn Gravdal, PhD
We invite you to explore these portraits. To learn more about each woman, simply click on the photograph to read her story. We hope “This Mad, Wicked Folly” can serve as a resource for teachers and students of women’s history, gender studies, African-American studies, art history, gay and lesbian studies, the history of photography, among other fields of study.
Monarch of England and its vast empire, Queen Victoria ruled from 1837 to 1901. The most powerful woman in the world, Victoria spluttered with rage at the notion of women’s rights, which had been touted in Great Britain since the 18th century. She condemned it as a “mad wicked folly.” The Queen let it be known that a woman’s duty was to use her God-given moral and spiritual superiority to serve her husband and give children a pious education. In the United States, Victoria’s attitudes became enshrined in what was known as the Cult of True Womanhood, which demanded that women adhere to the four tenets of piety, purity, domesticity, and submission.
Queen Victoria cast a long shadow in Britain’s former colony, the United States. Victorian America – a term that usually refers to the heavily populated Northeast as well as the Deep South - aspired to emulate Victorian styles and ideas. This period witnessed the Second Industrial Revolution and the Women’s Suffrage movement. Increasing prosperity in the worlds of business and industry triggered the growth of a “gilded” upper class that eagerly replicated the manners, morals, and esthetics of the former mother country.
By contrast, most of the female sitters in this exhibit rejected the restraints placed upon them as women and struggled for power: professional, artistic, legal, financial, political, or sexual. As if hoisting the Queen by her own petard, the women in this collection seized upon the Victorian discourse of “opposite” sexes, which presumed the superior moral and spiritual strength of females, to promote their own ambitions.
MAD AMERICAN AMBITION: WOMEN AT WORK
The American rags-to-riches myth came from a series of books for young working class men written by Horatio Alger, Jr. His narratives have been called “male Cinderella” stories. Ironically the Victorian working women in Section I did not in the least resemble lovelorn Cinderellas dreaming of a rescuer. On the contrary, they showed ferocious determination to create the lives they imagined for themselves and the opportunities they wished for others.
HEALERS: WOMEN IN AND OUT OF MEDICINE
American women healers were limited to a narrow range of roles, such as midwives and herbalists, until the first female medical schools in the U.S. appeared in the 1850s. Dr. Clemence Lozier established New York’s first female medical school in 1863. As early as 1870 the school graduated Susan McKinney Steward, the first black woman in New York State to earn a medical degree. But this institution’s establishment was hardly a smooth process; her students required police escorts to attend lectures at Bellevue Hospital because of hostility from male doctors and students. Dr. Lozier was also a supporter of female suffrage and homeopathy.
The great medical development of the 19th century, homeopathy played a key role in opening medical schools to women. This section includes Susan Edson, M.D., a homeopath who was President James Garfield’s personal physician. The orthodox male doctors barred her from caring for the president after his assassination, despite her position as White House physician, forbidding her to do anything other than fan Garfield’s brow.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the first female surgeon in the United States Army. In 1861, Walker volunteered for the Union Army and served as assistant surgeon. (At left, Walker poses in her modified uniform.) The stereocard (above) illustrates a leg amputation; it was while Walker was performing an amputation that she was captured by the Confederates.
SOCIETY, SEX, AND SURGERY: FEMALE ESPIONAGE
During the American Civil War, women spies from both North and South played pivotal roles in military espionage. The Union Army recruited Harriet Tubman, a former slave, as a spy. As a result she became the first woman in U.S. history to lead a covert military operation. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker used her position as an assistant field surgeon in the Union Army to move back and forth across the lines, gathering information as she stitched up Confederate soldiers. Rose Greenhow exploited her connections as a D.C. socialite to assure the first Confederate victory at the Battle of Bull Run.
Washington socialite Rose O'Neal Greenhow (pictured left) was recruited by the Confederate Army to head an espionage ring in Washington. The house (pictured above) in Manassas was the headquarters of Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard who - thanks to information from Greenhow - was the victor at the first Battle of Bull Run.
NO RESTRAINT OF TONGUE OR PEN: AUTHORS, ATTORNEYS, AND ACTIVISTS
Writing and reciting poetry had for centuries been considered womanly arts, but the Victorian women writers and activists in this exhibit scarcely limited themselves to the ladylike. Elizabeth Keckley, the first prominent African-American dress designer, wrote a memoir about politics and race during the Civil War. Susette Laflesche, from the Omaha tribe, was an Indian rights advocate who published and lectured across the U.S. Belva Lockwood - one of many Victorian women to break the gender barrier in law schools – was the first female lawyer to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.
WORKING FOR PAY: P.T. BARNUM’S MONEY
Before the days of genetic screening, drug therapies, and advanced surgery, birth defects and physical disabilities constituted a “life sentence.” Most 19th century women with genetic anomalies were barred from traditional female work: domestic service, teaching, and even the newly available jobs in factories. One of the few ways for these women to earn a living was to join a circus sideshow. A few undaunted women took the train to New York City where P. T. Barnum’s Museum offered room and board as well as competitive salaries. Giantess Anna Swan was hired for about $250 a week plus a private tutor. Bearded-lady Annie Jones negotiated a salary of about $500 a week from Barnum – more than Abraham Lincoln was earning as president. Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twins born into slavery, became the best-paid act in Barnum’s Museum, receiving upwards of $600 a week plus expenses. The McKoy sisters were so financially shrewd that they ultimately purchased the plantation on which they’d been born in Columbus County, North Carolina.
BUSINESSWOMEN: TOWARD “THE NEW WOMAN”
Many hardworking actresses from Britain came to the U.S. to cultivate the entrepreneurial skills needed to catapult themselves into positions of power: directors, theater owners, and producers with a knack for securing financial backing. To have control over her career, Laura Keene built her own theater. Lydia Thompson brought a small troupe from England and developed a national burlesque business. Charlotte Vining Woods took advantage of the new railroads to manage theaters from New York to California. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the “New Woman” became the term for Victorian females who were professionally successful and independent. Because the New Woman seemed to exercise control over her own life, regardless of the opinions of others, she was an object of fear and loathing.
Laura Keene (pictured left) debuted in New York in 1852 and became the first woman to manage a theater in the United States. The stereocard above shows Laura Keene's Theater on Broadway in New York, which was built in 1856 to Keene's specifications.
THE HEAVY LIFTING: WOMEN SCULPTORS
Young ladies from the middle and upper classes were encouraged in the fine arts of sketching, painting, and watercolors. It was a foregone conclusion that women did not have the physical stamina to sculpt. Stone and marble sculpting required formidable physical labor, large workshops, and considerable financial investment. Sartorial styles also made it dangerous for Victorian women to climb tall ladders or work from high scaffolding. This section shows that women such as Emma Stebbins were perfectly able to create massive public sculptures. Moreover, women of color - like Edmonia Lewis - and even very young women - like the teenaged Vinnie Reams – were able to win national competitions and prestigious commissions. Today the work of Victorian women stands as a testimony to their strength, in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Arlington National Cemetery, New York’s Central Park, and in other prominent public spaces across the nation.
SECTION II: THE FOLLY OF IDENTITY: MIXING, CROSSING, AND PASSING
What made a woman a woman? Or a man? If a man looked like a woman, dressed like a woman, and was universally taken to be a woman, was he still a man?
Despite the ossified gender categories promoted in Victorian ideology, 19th century Americans loved to contemplate the possibility that gender was as much a matter of doing or seeming as being - at least when it happened from the safe remove of a stage. This Victorian fascination with crossing gender lines made itself felt most strongly in the performing arts. Transvestitism was a hot ticket in the entertainment world and functioned in multiple ways.
Victorian women also apprehended a certain malleability in sexual, racial, and religious identities. Section II begins with actress Adah Isaacs Menken, an expert at crossing and passing. Throughout her life, for example, Menken insisted she was a Jew and refused to perform on Yom Kippur. It was unusual for Gentiles to convert to Judaism. Menken confided to her third husband that her father was an African-American from New Orleans, which would have given her a powerful reason for conversion. Many mixed-race women in the South converted to Judaism because it enabled them to relocate and pass for white. When Menken crossed the ocean to produce her show in Paris, she continued her love affair with boundary transgression. The actress had an affair with a much older man, French writer Alexandre Dumas the Elder, the grandson of an African slave.
SEXY DRAG: BREECHES PARTS
Actresses in “breeches parts” – costumed in trousers or tights to perform male roles – were all the rage in the public theaters and opera houses that mushroomed across the U.S. in the 19th century. This form of drag was usually a simple matter of audience titillation. In that tightly corseted era, it allowed women the freedom to expose their bellies, hips, and thighs in public. Menken became an international celebrity because she performed breeches parts in transparent bodystockings. Other actresses complicated the gender binary even more. Actress Leo Hudson - wearing her signature mustache - looked distinctly like a man pretending to be a woman.
THE SPELL OF DRAG: MAKING THE AUDIENCE FORGET
Serious tragedians such as Charlotte Cushman and Julia Seaman excelled at the daunting task of making spectators willingly suspend their disbelief when it came to gender. When these actresses made their entrance they had only a few seconds to become believable as men. Actresses who crossed sexual boundaries as well as gender lines were considered shocking but harmless. Charlotte Cushman made no bones about her lesbianism and it did no harm to her career.
DANGEROUS DRAG: INTO THE HANDS OF THE AUTHORITIES
To illustrate the Victorian fascination with transvestism, this section of the exhibit includes four male sitters who performed and even lived as women. It’s important to note that although Victorians (on both sides of the Atlantic) relished the spectacle of the male gender in drag, they were rarely tolerant of male sexual crossing: from heterosexual to homosexual. Some male performers, like Ella Zoyara, passed for the opposite sex around the clock. But Ella (Omar Kingsley) wound up in jail, where her true gender was exposed. Men who broke the rules of both gender performance and sexual categories were frequently prosecuted. London drag queen Ernest Boulton was picked up by the police for cross-dressing, a misdemeanor. But when one officer demanded to inspect Boulton’s buttocks, the charge was changed to a felony: sodomy. Boulton fled to the United States, changed his name to Ernest Byne, and continued his career in New York.
OLD SCHOOL DRAG: CROSSING FOR FUN
One of the time-honored goals of men in drag was to make the audience laugh by mocking the conventions of femininity. The Victorian era also had its share of drag kings. Male impersonators like Ella Wesner and Blanche Selwyn combined cross-dressing with parody and social satire.
VICTORIAN FAMILY VALUES
In the nineteenth century, the ideology of the Victorian family depended heavily upon the Cult of True Womanhood. This cult promulgated the four virtues of a true woman: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.
Through her piety she was to help redeem sinners. Her sexual purity was guarded by her moral strength, which was superior to that of a man. As daughter, wife, and mother, a Victorian woman was to be subservient and dependent upon the head of the household. The home was a woman’s natural sphere, in which her task was to cultivate the moral and social virtue of her children and create a domestic refuge for her world-weary husband. Few if any American women flourished within these strictures. Women of color and women of the poorer classes were automatically excluded from true womanhood. Queen Victoria’s template of a nose-to-the-grindstone, civic-minded, church-going, white an middle-class Victorian family rarely existed, especially given the psychological and social fault lines created by the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War
The Victorian mother, known as the “angel in the house,” was too impossibly good to be true. The demands of being a perfect caretaker, homemaker, moral educator, helpmeet and social guide were unattainable at best. Motherhood was frequently thrust upon women rather than sought after. Birth control was primitive and childbirth often perilous. Serial killer Lydia Sherman gave the lie to the notion of maternal instinct by serially murdering her own children.
Mary Surrat (left) was the first woman executed by the United States government. She owned the boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth and fellow conspirators met to plan the kidnapping of President Abraham Lincoln, but her role in the plot remains unknown. Surratt was hanged (on scant evidence) along with Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. They are pictured above (Surrat under umbrella) on the gallows as General John F. Hartranft reads their sentence.
VICTORIAN MARRIAGE: ONE SCANDAL-LESS FAMILY
Josephine Leall Willson Bruce and U.S. Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce came very close to Victoria’s imagined ideal. Well educated, prosperous, and industrious, both husband and wife were admired for their integrity. After the death of her husband, who was the first U.S. senator born into slavery, Josephine Bruce embarked on a career as a college dean. Mrs. Bruce was a disciple of Booker T. Washington and supported the Afro-centric movement. For years she lobbied to create an annual Negro History Celebration Observance. Bruce’s idea triggered the interest of young Carter G. Woodson and led to the creation of Black History Month.
THE MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC
Mental institutions in the 19th century were scarcely better than prisons, giving psychologically fragile women no chance to regain mental health. The madhouse was also a good place to get rid of an inconvenient woman. Our photograph of Hispanic performer M’lle Marie Zoe led us to a husband who managed to do just that. The Cuban actress died after a few months in a Long Island asylum, which left her fortune in the husband’s hands.
AN ASSASSIN FOR THE SENATOR’S SON-IN-LAW
Rebellious daughters of prominent politicians in the Victorian era could make just as much trouble as sons did. Young Lucy Hale, daughter of a leading abolitionist senator, was assiduously courted by the president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Senator Hale hoped the pair would marry. What streak of defiance led Lucy to enter into a secret engagement with a notorious womanizer named John Wilkes Booth? Imagine the senator’s mortification when a portrait of his daughter was found on Booth’s charred corpse.
ADULTERY AT THE ALTAR
Unchaste clergymen made appearances in novels as well as newspapers in Victorian America. In 1872 a New York weekly broke the story of the adulterous Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, son of the eminent Rev. Lyman Beecher, and brother of the world-famous author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe. Henry Ward Beecher had seduced Elizabeth Tilton, a parishioner married to one of Beecher’s close friends.
A “Boston marriage” consisted of two women cohabiting in a marriage-like relationship. Well-educated and independent career women had a variety of reasons for choosing to live with another woman. Well before Henry James’s The Bostonians was published in 1886, the actress Charlotte Cushman had already set up housekeeping twice, once with writer Matilda Hays and once with sculptor Emma Stebbins.
VICTORIAN SISTERHOOD: SISTERS SHARE EVERYTHING
North Carolina sisters Sarah and Adelaide Yates appeared to be demure young ladies in every respect. When they announced their decision to marry Eng and Chang Bunker – the original “Siamese twins” – friends and relations could not decide which shocked them more: that the sisters married conjoined twins or that they married Asian men. Sarah and Adelaide must have been fairly adventuresome; the two couples produced a total of 21 children.
VICTORIAN SISTERHOOD: THE ASTOUNDING CLAFLIN SISTERS
Everything undertaken by Victoria Claflin Woodhull as well as by her sister Tennessee Claflin was spectacular, which makes them a fitting finale here. Whether in business, politics, journalism, or sexual liberation, these sisters head the list of Victorian American women trailblazers. They fought for female suffrage, the Free Love movement, and legal prostitution. They founded, edited and published their own newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. The sisters were the first females to open their own stock brokerage on Wall Street.
The crowning irony of Victoria Woodhull’s audacity is that when she ran for president in 1872 (as a member of the Equal Rights Party), she was unable to vote for herself. Federal law barred U.S. women from voting. Regardless of their accomplishments in all walks of life, most Victorian women never had the privilege of voting. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wasn’t passed until 1920.
“THIS MAD, WICKED FOLLY” IN THE 21st CENTURY
Gay marriage, female producers and media moguls, a woman’s ability to hold political positions of leadership… many of the stories trumpeted on the nightly news find parallels in the tales told by this exhibit. Because of its focus on gender, race, violence, and sexuality, the “This Mad, Wicked Folly” exhibit feels startlingly modern. Newspapers still shock us with headlines about homicidal mothers and unscrupulous clergymen. The sexy, ambitious, and attention-hungry American sisters who fill the news today are every bit as “Victorian” as sisters Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Claflin Woodhull.
Selection and text — Kathryn Gravdal, PhD
The Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation — Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director; Amanda Smith, Archivist; James Jordan, Collections Manager
Special thanks goes to — Peter Kunhardt Sr., Jill Cowan, and Nate Mattison