Embattled maiden: The life of Anna Dickinson

One book sends me scurrying down rabbit holes to find more information about bits I hadn’t previously known. Reading about the suffrage movement, I came across this quote in Sisters:

During the war Anthony had discovered… a golden-voiced, new star of the abolitionist movement and the Republican party, Anna Dickinson. Those who heard Anna Dickinson lecture never forgot her combination of authenticity and magnetism, as well as her spontaneous interchanges with audiences… She became a national phenomenon.

National phenomenon! I had to know more. Sadly, there are very few extant books about Dickinson, and I had to bother the page desk at the library to unearth a copy of this book. (Sidenote: “bother” because it always seems as if my request is very tiresome to them. “Are you sure it’s here?” they always ask and sigh, double checking my call numbers. I got particular pleasure out of sending them back to gather four books at once, two of which were oversized, and having the attendee wheeze his way back to the desk to unceremoniously dump my tomes.)
At age 21, Anna Dickinson received a request from Congress to come to the House of Representatives to address the congressmen on a topic of her choosing. So in January of 1864, she spoke for nearly ninety minutes about the war to an assembly of Senators, Representatives, and President Lincoln. By this time, she’d been speaking publicly for four years, honing her craft and becoming a widely-sought-after speaker. Her style was to have an overwhelming array of facts, examples, and testimony intertwine with dramatic effect, vivid expression, winding the speech to a climactic point, and carried off with a “rich voice.”
Before she made her living as a speaker, she was a teacher, and then worked at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia until she made a speech accusing General McClellan of treason for his poor judgement in the Civil War battle raging at the time. She was then fired for these comments, which propelled her into needing to speak for money, and upped her exposure immensely. She spoke her mind on any topic under the sun, from slavery to women’s rights to Grant’s corrupt administration, even vilifying gambling and drinking on a tour out West to less-than-agreeable audiences. She was notorious for handling hecklers so well that they felt as if lightning bolts had smote them.
Speeches entitled “Demagogues and Workingmen” and “Things Hoped For” contain Anna’s views on the economic and political problems of new industrial America. She was an enemy of sprawling business corporations, “So much for the beauty of the monopoly, and the benefits of the Pa. Central. What fools and worse people are to submit to such tyranny, and help build it up.” She condemned the gigantic industrial combines that were plundering the country. “I contend a dead corporation has no right to control the lives of living men.”
Times were changing, and the demand for lecturers was waning. As business dried up, Anna had to deal with reducing her household expenses and giving up the house in Philadelphia that her mother and sister resided in. She had invested in Chicago real estate that was now worthless after the 1871 fire. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, she decides to reinvent herself. In 1876 she writes, produces, and stars in her play about Anne Boleyn, launching the debut in Boston to great acclaim except in the New York papers (disdain for a newcomer’s audacity to put herself as star and to launch in Boston). The New York treatment poisons the success of the venture, and Dickinson takes the bold move of announcing that she will address her critics from the stage after a Monday night performance of the play. From 11pm to midnight that Monday, she addresses point by point the attacks made on her. “I was almost crushed, but I struggled on as I will struggle on because, having taken up my work in life to do, I put it not down until I utterly fail!”
This appeal did little to help the success of her play, and penniless Dickinson anxiously awaited her next incarnation, that of solely focusing on playwriting and giving up acting. After a tiff with the diva (Fanny Davenport) acting in a play she’d written, Dickinson again fades into the background. But soon she is bursting forth into the spotlight again, this time acting in male roles in Shakespearean plays. A Philadelphia director decides there is money to be made in parading this Quaker woman around in tights, which ultimately ends up yet again in disaster when Anna refuses to open in Philadelphia because the cast hadn’t had a chance to rehearse and she suspected she was being set up for failure yet again.
Desperate for cash to pay for her medical expenses, she asks the 1888 Republican campaign for $5000 for a single lecture. They agree to $100 for 20 lectures, with a bonus if they win the campaign (which is never paid). Retreating to the home where her mother was dying and to repair her own health, Anna dips into madness, shutting herself in her room to read clippings of her old successes. On the afternoon of February 25, 1891 a group of people burst in on her and scurry her off to the state hospital for the insane. This serves to reawaken her senses, and she writes letters to her attorneys about her forced imprisonment. Upon being transferred to a different facility, the intake doctor realizes she is not insane and releases her. Then Anna releases her fury via court cases against her sister (for having her committed), the newspapers (for libel saying she was insane), and against the Republican party for not paying that promised bonus.
After the cases, she’s left once again destitute. She retires to the home of friends where she lives out her life regaling people with tales of meeting President Lincoln (which no one believes). Upon her death, a probate judge had to deal with disposing of several trunks of documents and letters which luckily were offered to the Library of Congress. Otherwise, this tragic figure’s life would have faded even further from history.