Jane Swisshelm was a total badass

Jane Grey Swisshelm

I’ve been tinkering again with The Book, and one of the rabbit holes that research dropped me into prompted the discovery that Swissvale (where I attended high school) and nearby Swisshelm Park were named after Jane Swisshelm, journalist, abolitionist, and all-around bad-ass.

The Wikipedia entry on her notes she wrote an autobiography called “Half a Century.” I downloaded it free from Project Gutenberg (it’s in the public domain) just to see if it was worth checking out.

Damn. What an incredible read.

I was hooked almost immediately. In a bit of foreshadowing, Swisshelm describes meeting Lafayette on the streets of Pittsburgh in the 1820s when she was a child:

When he came to where I stood, he stepped aside, laid his hand on my head, turned up my face and spoke to me. I was too happy to know what he said, and in all the years since that day, that hand has lain on my brow as a consecration.

This genuflection at the book’s start provides a link between America’s origin story — Lafayette’s invaluable assistance during the American Revolution — and the abolition movement that Swisshelm spends a considerable portion of her book describing.

Her marriage could have been written by Charlotte Brontë . During a carriage ride from Jane’s home in Wilkinsburg to the Edgeworth boarding school for girls, which was “at Braddock’s field,” the carriage driver gets lost and ends up in a creek. Their rescuer turns out to be the man who one day would become Jane’s husband — James Swisshelm. (Not certain, but I think this incident happened in or around 9 Mile Run.)

The Wallace Mansion, which served as the Edgeworth Ladies Seminary at Braddock’s Field. This screen grab is from the North Braddock municipal page.

A smart, strong-willed woman like Jane Swisshelm struggles under the yoke of marriage in 19th Century America. She portrays James as something of a bumbling dolt who stumbles from one questionable business venture to the next. To make it even more fun, his mother exerts a heavy hand over Jane’s household. Their religious differences — Jane is a devout Covenanter; her mother in-law a Methodist — prove insurmountable.

Divorce seems inevitable, and after 20 years, she abandons James, prompting him to file for divorce. She stresses that he wasn’t abusive. She was “bringing no charge against him who was my husband, save that he was not much better than the average man.” (She was expert at throwing shade …)

In my twenty years of married life, my conflicts were all spiritual; that there never was a time when my husband’s strong right arm would not be tempered to infantile gentleness to tend me in illness, or when he hesitated to throw himself between me and danger. Over streams and other places impassible to me, he carried me, but could not understand how so frail a thing could be so obstinate.

Jane, to put it mildly, is outspoken, often dogmatic. She finds an outlet for this by writing for newspapers, including the Spirit of Liberty, an anti-slavery weekly in Pittsburgh. It’s the start of her career as a writer, editor, and publisher.

Early in their marriage, the couple moves to Louisville, Kentucky, where they get a horrifying look at institutional slavery.

“For months I saw every day a boy who could not have been more than ten years old, but who seemed to be eight, and who wore an iron collar with four projections, and a hoop or bail up over his head. This had been put on him for the crime of running away; and was kept on to prevent a repetition of that crime. The master, who thus secured his property, was an Elder in the Second Presbyterian church, and led the choir.”

Jane isn’t shy about calling out “christians” who advocate slavery. She isn’t shy about calling out anyone. When it lands her crosswise with powerful men, she refuses to blink or back down.

It isn’t long before the abolitionists were debating the role of women in their movement.

“Abolitionists were men of sharp angles,” she writes. “Organizing them was like binding crooked sticks in a bundle, and one of the questions which divided them was the right of women to take any prominent part in public affairs.”

Abolishing slavery is her sole focus and mission. Half a Century spends considerable time arguing for women’s rights. But in the end, she obtains her view of women’s role from the Bible, which she feels compelled to explain to the readers of the Visiter, a St. Cloud, Minnesota, paper she edits and ultimately owns:

The policy of the Visiter in regard to Woman’s Rights, was to “go easy,” except in the case of those slave-women, who had no rights. For others, gain an advance when you could. Educate girls with boys, develop their brains, and take away legal disabilities little by little, as experience should show was wise; but never dream of their doing the world’s hard work, either mental or physical; and Heaven defend them from going into all the trades.

In a way, this is one of my favorite things about her. A liberal or conservative — by today’s bizarre, black-and-white definitions of those terms — would have a hard time fully embracing Swisshelm, even though she advocated for topics dear to each camp.

Jane’s fearlessness is demonstrated during her time in St. Cloud. She draws the wrath of Gen. Sam Lowrie, a Southern slaver who had set up camp in Minnesota and quickly amassed power as a Buchanan Democrat.

Jane starts writing for The Visiter, a 19th century content marketing campaign that was parading as a newspaper. It’s ultimate goal was to attract immigrants to the area. She sends letters to each of the three main stakeholders in town — including Lowrie — asking them to support the paper. He is the only one who fails to respond.

After she’s released her first three issues, she receives a letter from Lowrie stating that he’d support the Visiter “second to that of no paper in the territory if it will support Buchanan’s administration.”

I had not finished reading, when the thought came: “Now I have you.” Yet still I knew it looked like, ah, very like a man catching a whale with a fish hook secured to his own person, when there were a hundred chances to one that the whale had caught him. I replied that the St. Cloud Visiter would support Mr. Buchanan’s administration, since it could not live without Gen. Lowrie’s assistance, and such was his ultimatum.

She accepts his support and agrees to back Buchanan, who coddled pro-slavery interests at every turn. Rumors run rampant through St. Paul. Swisshelm has sold out.

Then she drops the hammer in the form of an editorial.

“It stated that the Visiter would, in the future, support Buchanan’s administration, and went on to state the objects of that administration as being the entire subversion of Freedom and the planting of Slavery in every State and Territory … Southern laborers were blessed with kind masters, and Mr. Buchanan and the St. Cloud Visiter were most anxious that Northern laborers should be equally well provided for.”

After the newspaper was published there “was a laugh, then a dead stillness of dread, and men looked at me as one doomed.”

Lowrie and his buddies don’t take kindly to opposition. Her press is vandalized. She’s chased and besieged by mobs. A nuisance $10,000 libel suit is filed in an attempt to silence her by crushing the owner of the paper. But she’s cunning. Repeatedly, she accepts terms of surrender and turns them into a victory dance.

The book is long, and it delves into specific local politics that I just skimmed. Despite having picked it up because of the Swissvale/Swisshelm/Wilkinsburg tie, I found the Minnesota narrative even more fascinating. The frothing, arrogant vehemence of the pro-slavery forces just feels so familiar, so contemporary.

Why are we surprised by the scurrilous, mob-like activity on the Internet these days? It’s in our blood. This is what we are. We’re not the civilized, unified people we claimed to be in the post-World War II world. We’re a roiling, bickering, dysfunctional wreck of a democracy. Trump chides security guards for not being more aggressive in removing dissenters from his rallies. But is this a strange upgrade, a ritualized substitution for past mob violence. Or is it just leading to an inevitable, violent conclusion?

Instead of circling and seething outside some woman’s house in the middle of the night because she dared speak her mind in broad daylight, we torch her on Twitter and unleash armies of trolls as single-minded and mindless as the angry torch-bearing cowards who tried to beat their way into the home where a group of abolitionists had retreated. It’s an important reminder that folks of this ilk will stop at nothing to get their way. From destroying a printing press in Minnesota to concentration camps in Europe.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine what else Swisshelm could cram into her first half century. But wait. There’s more.

She goes to Washington, D.C., initially for journalistic endeavors, but as the Civil War rages, she finds herself drawn to the hospitals, much as Walt Whitman was, though unlike Whitman, she quickly takes charge and imposes order on the chaos and neglect she found there.

She had a low opinion of President Lincoln, who had “proved an obstructionist instead of an abolitionist, and I felt no respect for him; while his wife was everywhere spoken of as a Southern woman with Southern sympathies — a conspirator against the Union.”

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln

Despite this, she is coaxed into attending a presidential reception at the White House:

I watched the President and Mrs. Lincoln receive. His sad, earnest, honest face was irresistible in its plea for confidence, and Mrs. Lincoln’s manner was so simple and motherly, so unlike that of all Southern women I had seen, that I doubted the tales I had heard. Her head was not that of a conspirator. She would be incapable of a successful deceit, and whatever her purposes were, they must be known to all who knew her.

She vows not to join the reception line. “But I could not resist going to him with the rest of the crowd, and when he took my hand I said: “May the Lord have mercy on you, poor man, for the people have none.” He laughed heartily, and the men around him, joined in his merriment.”

When I came to Mrs. Lincoln, she did not catch the name at first, and asked to hear it again, then repeated it, and a sudden glow of pleasure lit her face, as she held out her hand and said how very glad she was to see me. I objected to giving her my hand because my black glove would soil her white one; but she said: “Then I shall preserve the glove to remember a great pleasure, for I have long wished to see you.”

After the war years, Swisshelm remained in Washington briefly, starting her final newspaper, the Reconstructionist, but it wasn’t long before she turned her guns on President Andrew Jackson, whose return fire cost her the government job she held and her newspaper. She returned to Swissvale, where she died in 1884.

Historic marker in Swissvale at the approximate location of the house where Swisshelm died in 1884. (This is at South Braddock Avenue and Greendale Avenue.)

By the way, if you’re interested enough in Swisshelm to have gotten this far, check out this post by novelist Kathryn Bashaar. She’s apparently planning to write a novel about Swisshelm and the research she’s doing is fascinating.

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