The Perils of Pauline

Pauline Cushman
Pauline Cushman

Pauline Cushman was an actress who became a celebrated spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, a hotel proprietress, the wife of a sheriff and in the end, a poor scrubwoman.

During her heyday, Pauline was toasted nationwide as “The Scout of the Cumberland.” President Abraham Lincoln said she had “done more to earn the title than many a man who wore the shoulder straps of major during the war.”

She was described as a woman of “magnificent physique, with lustrous black eyes, raven ringlets that fell to her waist, the profile of a Madonna and a voice as melodious as a lute.”

She was born Harriet Wood on June 10, 1833 in New Orleans. When she was a young woman, her family moved to Michigan. She didn’t like it there and when she was eighteen, she returned briefly to Louisiana before heading to New York City to become an actress. She also took the stage name, Pauline Cushman.

In 1853, she married Charles Dickinson and bore him two children. When war came, he joined the Union army but died in December 1962 of dysentery. Following his death, she returned to acting.

While touring in Union-held Louisville, Kentucky in 1863 some Confederate sympathizers bribed her to propose a toast to Jeff Davis and the Confederacy.  Although staunchly for the Union she did it after informing a high-ranking Union officer. He encouraged her to do it and establish herself as a Southern sympathizer. After her famous toast, the theater manager fired her for causing a riot. Overnight, Pauline became a darling of the Confederacy and she went to work as a Union spy.

Handsome Confederate officers swooned over the beautiful Pauline. She was even more beguiling when she charmed them with her soft New Orleans drawl. The enchanted high-ranking officers thought nothing of discussing battle plans in her presence.

Using her acting skills, she was able to travel as woman or even a young man. She was able to move freely behind Confederate lines. Sometime during this period, she became the only woman major in the Union Army.

Performing on stage in Nashville gave her an opportunity to do more spying.  While visiting the headquarters of General Braxton Bragg she managed to get her hands on his battle plans. She hid them in her shoe but somehow aroused their suspicions. Using all the feminine charm she could muster Pauline almost got away but the battle plans were discovered. She was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.

Before she was hanged, Pauline became violently ill. Was she faking it? Probably. The Union army was on the offensive and the Confederates in full retreat. General Bragg decided to leave Pauline behind.

Afterwards she received commendations from President Lincoln and General James Garfield. She was also awarded the rank of brevet major. Her cover blown, Pauline decided to take advantage of her celebrity status and resume her career on the stage performing as “Miss Major Cushman.” Appearing on stage around the country in one-woman plays, she told wild embellishments of her daring career as a Union spy.

By 1872, her fame was fading and she married a man named August Fichtner but he died soon after.

In San Gabriel, California, she met a man named Jere Fryer and it was love at first sight.  She listed her age as thirty-five when she married the handsome, thirty-year-old ladies man in 1879.  Actually, she was forty-six, but could easily pass for a much younger woman.

Soon after the wedding, the couple moved to Casa Grande and opened a hotel and livery stable.  Jere soon resumed his skirt-chasing ways with the local ladies. Pauline caught up with one in a corral and the two began to duke it out.  It was a knock-down-drag-out fight and the younger woman soundly whipped poor Pauline. Her spirit was broken, perhaps for good.

Despite his philandering, she stuck with him and when he was elected sheriff in the mid-1880s, the two moved to the Pinal County Seat at Florence.

Pauline believed she could keep Jere faithful by giving him a baby.  By now, she was well into her fifties but had managed to keep her true age a secret.  She found an unwed mother willing to give up her child and tricked Jere into believing it was his.  Unfortunately, the child got sick and died and the real mother appeared. Jere was crushed and they soon split up.

She returned to San Francisco and tried, unsuccessfully, to resume her stage career.  However, audiences no longer wanted to hear about her Civil War heroism. Finally, she took a job scrubbing floors in a boarding house.  Suffering from the pains of arthritis, Pauline began using morphine. On December 2, 1893, she was found in her room, dead from a drug overdose.

Major Pauline Cushman, the former Toast of the Nation was about to be carted away to a pauper’s grave when an enterprising newspaperman discovered her identity.  Once again, she was front-page news. The Grand Army of the Republic gave a parade in her honor and she was buried with full military honors. A marker was put up at the Oakdale cemetery that read simply: “Pauline Cushman, Federal Spy and Scout for the Cumberland.”

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