Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Adventurous Hettie Dickey

Sometimes I think we develop this picture of Victorians as being very staid, never-step-out-of-line, do-what-they're-told kind of people, especially Victorian women (the occasional Lizzie Borden notwithstanding). And while that certainly was not always the case, it probably was more often than not, which is what makes a story like Hettie Dickey's newsworthy at the time, whereas now she would just be that weird cousin that no one wants to talk about.

The first time I ran across Hettie Dickey was this newspaper article from 1895, which details the young Stanton woman's trek halfway across the country to Chicago earlier in the year. You can read the article in its entirety, but I'll try to briefly summarize it here. In the early afternoon of March 24, the 26 year old Hettie donned her brother's suit (which she had stowed away in the woodshed), and walked from her house in Stanton towards the B&O station at Kiamensi. From there, she walked westward along the tracks, then across some fields until she arrived in Newark. In Newark, she boarded a train to Baltimore, then another to Chicago.

By the time she reached Chicago, she had almost no money, and ended up sleeping in a lumber yard and in a vacant boxcar. After several weeks of being outside in Chicago in April -- and passing herself off as a man the entire time -- she fell ill and ended up being taken to Cook County Hospital. There, after having her brother's ill-fitting shoes (along with a good bit of skin) removed from her feet, the doctors unsurprisingly made the discovery that she was a woman. After finally admitting her true identity, her family was notified, and five months later she returned home.

Until I started looking into this again, I had figured that this was pretty much the entire story -- Girl looks for adventure, runs away from home, then returns after realizing how tough the world is. (The exception being the cryptic sentence, "It appears that for years she has had an overwhelming desire to be a man".) However, I soon learned that not only was this but one chapter in the story, it was a middle chapter, to boot. This article here, from October 1899, shows that Hettie's Chicago trip was far from an isolated incident. It was, in fact, the second of six such journeys she undertook in as many years.

While there are a few discrepancies between the accounts, by taking them all into consideration (including this one, a fuller account of the Chicago trip, found about 2/3 of the way down the page) we can get a bit of a better insight into what drove Miss Dickey to roam about the country -- and roam she did. Her first sojourn (which the article states was in 1893, but was probably a year later, as we know the Chicago trip was in 1895) was to Norfolk, Virginia, and its purpose was not just to "see the world as a man". Actually, it was to see a man. And at this point, we need to go back and say a few things about our protagonist.

Hettie Dickey was born in Stanton in 1869 to Charles Hayes (1833-1902) and Elizabeth (1833-1900) Dickey. Her father was a cooper, and probably fashioned barrels for the grist mill in Stanton (and maybe others in the area, too). As shown on the map below (an inset from the 1868 Beers map), they lived on the north side of Main Street, a few houses down from Charles' (who often went by Hayes) brother, Benjamin. In 1882, Charles left the coopering trade to open a mercantile store, possibly going into business with Benjamin, who had been a shopkeeper in Stanton for years.

Stanton -- 1868
Although several of the newspaper stories state that the Dickeys were Methodist, it seems clear that they were actually Presbyterian. In 1888, both Charles and Benjamin were officers of the Stanton Presbyterian Church, and many are buried at White Clay Creek Presbyterian. Hettie, though, actually did have a conversion, and it seems to have been at least one of the driving forces behind her escapades. In 1894 (or possibly, '93), she was introduced to the Seventh-day Adventists.

She seems to have taken to the Adventist message, and more specifically, to an Adventist minister. It was he for whom she was looking in Norfolk on her first trip away from home in 1894. Her next trip was the Chicago one, which also included a stay in an insane asylum. Next up after that (in either 1896 or 1897) was a tour of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, which concluded with another hospital stay, this time New York's Bellevue Hospital.

After returning home and reading about the conditions for steelworkers, Hettie decided to visit Pittsburgh (still masquerading as a man). In 1898, she "made a tour of all the prominent seaside resorts of the Atlantic coast", including three weeks in Atlantic City. Her final road trip (at least as of 1899) was of the Southern states, including a stay in New Orleans.

The true reason behind her travels is never quite clear. She talks about wanting to see the world as a man, and did in fact travel as a man. (Not a new concept, to be sure. There are plenty of stories of women serving in the army during the Civil War, often not discovered until being wounded.) However, I don't see any way that her affinity for the Seventh-day Adventists doesn't play into it somehow. Several of the articles make mention of it, including the one below, which dates from just after she left home on the Chicago trip. And though the 1899 article makes it sound like she's ready to settle into a "normal" life, I found a 1903 Adventist newsletter (page 6) that lists Hettie Dickey as having donated items to a school, so we know she retained her ties for at least a few more years.

Frustratingly, I was unable to find any record of her after that. I don't know when or where she died, or if she ever made any more trips about the country. We'll probably never know exactly drove Hettie Dickey to don her brother's clothes and set out alone on her (at least) six separate journeys. Whatever it was, it certainly made her one of the more colorful residents to ever to call Stanton home.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • I'm not even sure exactly what Hettie's given first name is. In the 1870 census, the one year old is listed as Ester. In Runks, she's listed as Harriet.
  • What ever happened to the Stanton Presbyterian Church? As of 1888, Scharf states there were only ten communicants, so I assume it closed sometime not long after.
  • If anyone finds anything more about Hettie Dickey, please let us know. I'd love to know what became of her.

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