The American Joan of Arc Goes Insane

Firebrand Young Lady
Firebrand Young Lady

Do you ever sometimes wish 19th century asylums still existed for those troublesome relatives who make family gatherings so trying?

My great grandmother was sent to an asylum because she had lucrative properties in Jersey City, NJ. Her evil daughter (my grandmother’s sister) wanted the brownstones and vacant squares as an early inheritance so she had her mother put away. My great grandfather tried to have her released, but somehow couldn’t, so after his wife committed suicide in the asylum, he did the same.

My grandmother was offered a piece of the inheritance but preferred to live poor as a church mouse with her husband and 9 children a few towns away in a haunted house.

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (The Joan of Arc of the Union) came from Philadelphia Quaker stock. Her father died when she was two and the family could have used a few Jersey City properties to get by, but instead the community of Friends took care of them. Elizabeth never let poverty cloud her active and opinionated mind. She read voraciously, took a job at the US Mint and got fired at the age of 15 for proclaiming  Civil War General George McClellan a traitor to the Union.

William Lloyd Garrison the famous editor invited her to speak in Boston after hearing her oratory (favorite subjects for her were abolition, temperance  and women’s rights). Still a young girl, she became an instant sensation and toured the nation.

First she spoke highly of Abe Lincoln, but soon after meeting him she publicly and tactlessly found fault, not only with his policies, but with his appearance and mannerisms. Biting the hand that feeds you never ends well, does it?

The war finished and so did her popularity. Like a washed up celebrity of today on Dancing with the Stars Elizabeth turned to bad acting gigs and suffered the spears of critics until one day the men in white suits came to take her away.

The reasons for this are sketchy at best. There’s some evidence she did not go insane. A kind family in Goshen, NY took care of her for the last forty years of her life. They sought no early inheritance. I imagine Goshen was not such a bad place to live out one’s life in obscurity.

The American Venus

Early sex kitten?
Early sex kitten?

Imagine walking around New York City seeing your image everywhere–your sublime nudity associated with goddesses and every noble cause. You’re discovered by a photographer and soon every artist wants you, every filmmaker clamors for your presence on their movie set. Imagine you’re sixteen. Then imagine you’re looking out the window of an insane asylum on your fortieth birthday.

descending_nightAudrey Munson known as Miss Manhattan, The American Venus and The Exposition Girl before the First World War was every artists’ muse. In New York City alone it is estimated that she is the model for 22 statues. Three fourths of the statuary at the Panama Pacific International Exposition (World’s Fair in San Fransisco) was inspired by her likeness.

But then it all went terribly wrong. Most modern girls dream of being discovered, of someone noticing their intrinsic worth or at the very least finding them pretty. A breathless ten year bloom, an extravagant celebration of a single girl’s ability to inspire a generation of sculptors to transcend mere sexual desire and rise to something more noble ends with a killing frost.

Confident about her future--maybe?
Confident about her future–maybe?

Audrey gave herself to the ages but one man broke the spell. He murdered his wife to be with Venus. He hung himself before the electric chair could be readied. The slow creep of autumn when bits of yourself fall away at least gives you momentary, bittersweet pleasures–but killing frosts come unexpectedly when fruit is at its very fullness.

The statues then mock you. The artists feel your taint and want nothing to do with you. Many years pass suffering the icy loneliness of lost fame and with the first grey hairs at your temple you are put in a room like a box to remember the far away city of your youth.

Thanks to   for introducing me to Audrey!

Heedless Moths . . .
Heedless Moths . . .