The Real Widows of the Pension Office
Today’s post was written by Pamela Loos-Noji, a former volunteer with the Civil War Widows Pension Project. The National Archives holds 1.28 million case files of pension applications from family members of deceased Civil War Union soldiers. A team of more than 60 volunteers, led by National Archives staff, is digitizing the files and placing them online. Pamela will be giving a talk on “The Real Widows of the Pension Office” on October 16 and 18.
The reason I decided to volunteer was an article written by a friend of mine about her experience working with the Civil War Widows Pension Project. She wove a compelling story of the person at the center of her file and brought the relationship between a mother and her soldier son to life in a way that surprised me. I was hooked. I, too, wanted to find stories, have people from the past speak to me of their lives, and to share what I learned.
The years after the Civil War were right in the middle of the Victorian era. In my mind, Victorians were uptight, straight-laced people who did not express strong feelings and who acted in a very proper manner. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
In fact, I learned a lesson I thought I’d already learned about history. People are the same as they’ve always been. In fact, the stories in the widows’ pensions run the gamut from love, hate, sex, incest, envy, cruelty, and abandonment to misguided kindness and self-sacrifice. Not too different from the headlines found in today’s more tabloid-like newspapers. Couples divorced, men beat their wives and cheated on them, and even in one case, killed the inconvenient husband of his lover. And, as today, good people take up fewer column inches.
I first fell in love with Henrietta Frances Kane (WC 49966), who was left a widow at age 21 with two children in Ellsworth, ME, in 1862. She received a pension and moved to Boston in about 1871. Perhaps she made a few mistakes in her choice of the people she associated with, and she did have an illegitimate son in 1877, rumored to be the child of a fairly well-known baseball player of the day, James O’Rourke. But rather than censure her, I felt as if I wanted to champion her cause.
Her real troubles began in the late 1880s, when her enemies tried to take away her pension. They accused her of running a bawdy house, of having an illegitimate child (unfortunately true), and of “keeping company” with men who sometimes paid her bills. This kind of attack was possible because of the new pension law of 1882 that attempted to crack down on fraud, specifically the issue of women continuing to draw pension money while living with men who were to all intents and purposes husbands—though without benefit of civil or church ceremony.
If a widow remarried, she was not supposed to keep her pension because she now had someone to take care of her. Her primary accuser, Flora Bartlett, was angry because a friend of Henrietta’s had testified against Flora in an attempt to take away Flora’s Navy Widow’s pension!
Henrietta put up a pretty good defense in front of the special examiner who took the depositions about her case. But Flora made a stronger one. Henrietta’s pension was stopped. A few years later, Henrietta tried to reopen her case with new testimony from the washerwoman who admitted that her previous testimony had been coerced and not the truth. But, to no avail. Henrietta never did get her pension back.
Though temporarily triumphant, a few years later Flora had her pension stopped, when her sailor husband (who was in fact not dead) came back to find her drawing a pension on his service. He was so angry that he marched into the pension office and demanded that they not give her a penny more. Well, he used more colorful language: he “wanted to expose a d——d swindle on the government.”
However, if remaking a life is the best revenge, Henrietta triumphed in the end.
At first, it must have been difficult without the income from the pension, but it seems she took it in stride. She went back to her old profession as a milliner and dressmaker for a while, and then reinvented herself as an “electric physician.” Henrietta was riding a new trend popularized by Emma Britten, who thought that the electric current from batteries could cure illness. You have to hand it to Henrietta. She was nothing if not inventive in looking for ways to support herself and her son.
Her son, Harry, stayed with her until the end, moving them out to the suburbs in about 1906. A few months after Henrietta’s death in 1908, he married. Her final triumph was a son who had moved to the suburbs, had a job as a salesman, and had begun his own life with a young wife—in the end, the American dream!
This was quite a soap opera, and since much of the information came from depositions, some of the real words of the persons involved are passed down to us. It is possible to get a sense of a person’s way of speaking and his or her grasp of English grammar from the transcribed responses. Some very colorful language also brings these people to life.
For me the stories start here, but then additional research fills in details about the people’s lives before and after the specific time covered in the pension file itself. That research places the people into the larger world of the historical period. But it is the information of the individual lives in the files that bring that history alive. I feel now that I “know” Henrietta and the people around her, and believe I’m the better for knowing her story of triumph in adversity.
Yes, I started out with a love of history, but this kind of intimate reconstruction of an individual life is something even historians don’t find everyday. To learn about specific events, told in the words of someone long dead, thrills me. And that it is women’s lives we’re talking about is even more special, as they often are sidelined in history, if only because it is believed that they left fewer documents. Well, the widows pension files redress that wrong by making these women’s lives available today, if we take care to listen.
It’s a puzzle to me why Hollywood has to do film series and remakes of fairly recent, well-done films as if there were no new stories to tell. If producers would look to history, they wouldn’t even have to make stuff up. There are stories already there to tell. Stories that speak in many ways to the human experience, that are instructive, and sometimes are just plain fun.
You can hear more colorful stories of “The Real Widows of the Pension Office” from Pamela on October 16 and 18 at the National Archives.
Watch the volunteers at work in our Inside the Vaults videos short.