Saint Pelagia: From High Heels to a Hair Shirt

“She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls.”

Pelagia with her courtesans as Nonnus prays for her (source)

Pelagia with her entourage as Nonnus prays for her. (source)

One day in Antioch, sometime in 341 CE*, the beautiful courtesan Pelagia went for a stroll with her entourage. She was decked out in jewels and costly robes, surrounded by servants, and filled the air with the scent of musk and other perfumes. According to Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, she was a famous actress who wove her spell not only by her beauty, but by sorcery also, and “went beyond all in lasciviousness.”

While out and about, Pelagia happened to pass by a group of eight bishops who had been summoned to a council by the Bishop of Antioch. At the time, one of the visiting bishops, Nonnus, was expounding on the Bible, but he couldn’t hold the attention of the brothers because they were all dazzled by Pelagia’s beauty. However, as good men of God, when they saw that her head was uncovered and her body was clearly visible through her clothes, the brothers turned their heads away from the “ostentatious sinner.” All, that is, except Nonnus.

Nonnus was considered a “most holy bishop.” He had been taken out of the monastery at Tabennisi and made a bishop “because of his incomparably beautiful life.” When Pelagia passed by he stared intently until she was gone. Only then did he turn to his brother bishops and say “Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?” He then began to cry and again asked his question. Nonnus explained that he was delighted with her beauty because it made him think about all the time and effort she put into her appearance, for admirers who would come and go. He then asked why they didn’t put the same effort into pleasing God, who was eternal.

The next Sunday, Nonnus was asked to preach, and Pelagia happened to be in the congregation. She began to cry and told two of her servants to follow Nonnus when he left to find out where he lived. She then sent him a message.

“O holy servant of Christ, I am a sinful woman and servant of the devil. I have heard that your God, who upholds the arc of the heavens, came down to earth not for the sake of the righteous but to save sinners. . . . So if you really are a true disciple of Christ do not turn your face away from me, for through you I long to see the Savior, through you perhaps I may get a glimpse of his holy face.”

She also reminded him that Christ was a friend of publicans, talked with sinners, and showed mercy to the Samaritan woman at the well.

Nonnus wrote back that God knew her, who she was, and what she wanted, but he was a humble servant of God and a sinner, so he couldn’t meet with her alone. If she truly wanted to be virtuous, she would meet with him before all the other bishops. She was willing and went to the meeting and asked them to make her a Christian.

They told her that a harlot couldn’t be baptized unless there was someone to guarantee that she wouldn’t fall back into her sinful ways. Pelagia was evidently a very smart woman. She made Nonnus responsible for her by saying “You would be denying God and worshiping idols if you do not today give me new birth as a bride of Christ and offer me to God.” Nonnus, a smart man, agreed and sent a message to the bishop of the city and asked that a deaconess be sent. The deaconess, the lady Romana, dressed Pelagia in a white baptismal gown and she was baptized that day.

Several days later, Pelagia had one of her slaves inventory all of her gold, silver and costly clothes. She then sent for Nonnus and gave these all to him. He summoned a steward and told him to distribute the goods to the poor, widows, and orphans, that none of it was to go to the church. Pelagia then set all of her slaves free.

Eight days later, when Pelagia was supposed to take off her baptismal gown, she got up in the middle of the night, removed it and put on a coarse tunic which Nonnus had given her. She then left without saying anything to anyone. In fact, she was never seen in Antioch again. Romana was distraught, but Nonnus comforted her saying she had chosen the “good portion” like Mary in the gospels. Nonnus evidently knew something.

Three or four years later, Jacob the Deacon, who worked with Nonnus and had been with him in Antioch, asked his permission to go to Jerusalem. Nonnus agreed and said, “My advice to you, brother deacon, is that when you get to Jerusalem, you make enquiries there about a certain brother Pelagius, a monk and a eunuch who has been enclosed in solitude there for many years. Visit him. I am sure he will be of great benefit to you.”

Pelagius lived in a small cell on the Mount of Olives and had a great reputation as a man of God among the brothers. Jacob visited him and asked for prayers for Nonnus and himself. Several days later, he decided to visit Pelagius again and couldn’t get an answer by knocking on the small window of the cell. So, he pushed open the window and saw that Pelagius was dead; he then took the news back to the monks in Jerusalem.

The monks came and removed the body of Pelagius, treating it with great respect as that of a holy man. But when they began to annoint the body for burial, they discovered that Pelagius was a woman! Pelagius was in fact Pelagia. Jacob had not recognized her because of the changes in her face due to a severe life of deprivation and fasting.

The brothers tried to keep it a secret, but word got out and the people rejoiced. It was especially news among the women, who came from the monasteries of virgins in Jericho and Jordan. They followed her funeral procession saying, “Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ who has hidden so many riches upon earth, not only among men but also among women.”

Pelagia is the name of several saints, all probably based on legend. Chrysostom was a contemporary of the converted “harlot”, although he doesn’t actually give her name. But, there was surely a women with this basic story, who is given the name Pelagia in the accounts in the resources below. The Syrian martyrology gives October 8 as the feast day for Pelagia of Antioch.

* The Synod of Antioch was called in 341 CE.

Select Narratives of Holy Women by John the Stylite translated by Agnes Smith Lewis (as written above the Sinaitic Palimpsest)
The Life of St Pelagia the Harlot by Jacob the Deacon
St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily LXVII
Pelagia“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.

Jezebel and Asherah: Controlling a Culture by Slut Shaming the Queen

Today I am pleased to welcome Kyra Kramer, author of “The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters.”

Jezebel, the Painted Queen, is one of the most notorious women to have ever lived. Her name has come to literally mean a woman who uses sex to corrupt men and tempt them into sin. She is the ultimate trollop and has been slut shamed longer and more fiercely than any other woman in history. But why? Did she really lead her husband, King Ahab, astray from the paths of righteousness? Did she really use her womanly wiles as a weapon to destroy God’s chosen prophets? History and archeology suggest not. It seems as if Jezebel’s real “crime” was to embrace the Hebrew religion a little too well. Could she have been maligned not for turning Ahab away from Yahweh, but for keeping him loyal to Yahweh’s feminine side?

ezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Most people don’t know it but Yahweh (AKA Jehovah or God or Allah) had a goddess consort named Asherah for thousands of years. In fact, Asherah may have been more than a consort. Just as a coin has two sides but is a single object, or like the Holy Trinity represents a single deity, Asherah may have been God’s female ‘face’ — the female hypostasis of God. This means that to venerate Asherah was not necessarily a distinct form of worship, but rather would have been an official part of the Hebrew religion itself.

Asherah disappeared from official Judeo-Christian dogma roughly three thousand years ago, but archeological evidence shows her presence throughout Israel and the ancient Near East for millennia before that. In several instances her name is directly linked with Yahweh. An archeological site in eastern Sinai, called Ajrud, found inscriptions on ancient Israelite stelae that decree, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah/asherah”, “by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”, and “I bless you by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”.

Evidence of Asherah also lingers in the written historical record of Judaism, if you know how to spot it. Asherah was associated with trees and groves, and was often symbolized by a wooden pole or tree. She was so strongly connected to trees and tree images (especially oak, palm, tamarisks, almond, terebinthes, and poplar) that Biblical mentions of planting trees near altars, shrines, or holy places are forgotten references to her. Furthermore, the multiple mention of burials of holy men and women taking place near (or under) sacred trees are also contextual remnants of her worship.

Several passages in the Bible suggest miracles Asherah wrought via her sacred trees. For example, when Jacob’s father-in-law tried to trick him after promising him every spotted member of his flock:

“Jacob … took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted” (Genesis, 30:37-39). Why would Jacob use poles made from poplar and almond trees to facilitate this miracle if it were not to call on Asherah, the feminine half of the God of Abraham, for aid? Additionally, when Joshua reaffirmed the covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrews, he recorded it “in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord. 27 “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God” (Joshua, 24:26-27).

An oak tree in the sacred place of Yahweh was almost certainly a symbol of God’s feminine aspect, Asherah.

Acceptance for Asherah worship was also implied by what wasn’t said in sacred text. When Jehu overthrew Ahab’s son and became the unlawful king of Israel, his excuse was that God commanded him to purify Yahwehism. Nevertheless, Jehu didn’t tear down or desecrate a religious structure built by Ahab to honor Asherah, which suggests Asherah WAS a part of orthodox Yahwism. In 1 Kings Chapter 18, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal were slaughtered in Kishon Valley because they worshiped a false god, but there is no mention of an execution for the four hundred prophets of Asherah that had accompanied Baal’s priests. Why would the prophets of Asherah be spared if they were not legitimate practitioners of Yahwism? Finally, devotion to Asherah was not explicitly condemned in the earliest books of the Hebrews and seldom even in the later works. If her worship was so closely connected to that of Baal, why was her veneration treated with kid gloves? The lack of prophetic criticism for the worship of Asherah is a strong indication that devotion to her was once a normal part of Yahwistic piety.

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah’s legitimate status among Hebrew practitioners opens up the possibility, even the likelihood, that Jezebel acted as a priestess of Asherah as part of her responsibilities as queen of Israel. As an official part of Yahwism, the goddess Asherah would have doubtlessly had state celebrations and rituals in her honor that would have been overseen or implemented by the highest ranking woman in the nation, which was obviously the wife of the king. Jezebel is mostly connected to Baal in popular culture, but it is practically a given that she was a follower of Asherah. Not only did four hundred prophets of Asherah “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), her father was recorded historically as being a priest of Astarte [Asherah] or a priest of the Goddess. That means that Jezebel would have been, at least in practice, a pluralistic Yahwist who venerated Asherah along with her Hebrew husband.

Of course, we know in hindsight that the fundamentalist arm of the Jewish religion was victorious in the end. The Hebrew conservatives, known as the deuteronomists, eventually eradicated almost all evidence – even the memory – of Asherah as a part of the Yahwistic godhead or consort to God. One of the ways this happened was with creative editing of the early Hebrew texts. The veneration of Asherah was repackaged as having always been counter to the will of Yahweh and having never been an acceptable part of Yahwism. Although the idea of an exclusively masculine God only became significant during the Babylonian exile of the Jews, the deuteronomists rewrote the earlier records and cleared out as many direct references to Asherah as they could. Over time, the people forgot that there had ever BEEN any other form of Judaism. The idea that God has both a male and a female aspect was not just removed from the orthodox belief system; the very concept of it was lost to believers because it never existed in the first place.

This was not an overnight process. It took hundreds of years to remove Asherah from the state cult and codified texts, and even then she remained in Jewish rituals long after she had ceased to be formally acknowledged as a part of Yahwism. Nor has Asherah disappeared entirely even in modern times. The menorah — the seven-branched candlestick used during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – appears to be modeled after the seven-branched stylized “Tree of Life” that represented Asherah and thus serves as an unrecognized and unspoken testament to Yahweh’s female aspect.

There are several biblical records of direct conflicts between those who still wanted to co-worship Asherah and those who wanted Yahweh to stand alone. The prophet Jeremiah told Jews living in Egypt that if they did not stop their reverence for Asherah then God would punish them. Defying the prophet, the people resisted this command:

15 Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, 16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” 19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” Jeremiah 44:15-19

Likewise, the prophet Hosea was in despair because the Israelites “consult a wooden idol, and a diviner’s rod speaks to them. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God. They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, where the shade is pleasant. Therefore your daughters turn to prostitution and your daughters-in-law to adultery” (Hosea 4:12-13). The prostitution and adultery Hosea speaks of is the continued worship of Asherah in her sacred groves, which was described by deuteronomists as “harlotry” because it was “cheating” on Yahweh — failing to maintain Yahwistic purity — in their opinion.

Clearly, the conservatives faced an uphill battle in eradicating Asherah from Judaism, even centuries after the death of Ahab and the establishment of deuteronomistic authority. The situation must have seemed especially dire for fundamentalists during Ahab’s reign. The deuteronomists of Jezebel’s time couldn’t have known that their version of the Lord would become the orthodox version of the Hebrew religion. For the contemporary conservatives, Jezebel’s worship of Asherah (which would have been seen as a righteous act by the majority of the Israeli populace) was terrifically problematic. As the queen of Israel, Jezebel’s influence would have been seen as a formidable obstacle for the fundamentalist cause to overcome because she promoted and participated in the populist worship of Asherah. With the queen bolstering the goddess, it would be even more difficult for Jewish extremists to convince the Hebrew people that Yahweh had no consort.

From a deuteronomistic perspective, Jezebel had to die and her death had to be seen as a punishment from God to undermine those who considered Asherah to be a part of Judaism. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly how the queen’s murder was portrayed.

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

According to Biblical text, Jezebel died after being thrown out of a window at the behest of the God-sent usurper Jehu. In Canaanite royal society, the “lady-in-the-window” motif was a common way to represent many goddesses throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, including Asherah. For Yahwistic fundamentalists the act of looking out of the window would have been symbolically linked with the “harlotry” of goddess worship. If Jezebel, looking out of the window, was the representation of Asherah, then having the queen thrown down from the window served a twofold purpose. It wasn’t just the queen who died. Jezebel’s fall symbolically represented the destruction of Asherah worship in Yahwism.

Okay, but why did Jezebel get slut shamed? Asherah worship did not indicate unfaithfulness to Ahab, her husband. Nor are there Biblical texts indicating Jezebel had sex with anyone else. If she committed no sexual infidelities or transgressions, how did she become remembered as a strumpet? Well, it comes back to the fact that devotion to Asherah was seen as the worst kind of “harlotry” by the conservatives. Jezebel’s harlotry was particularly bad because it served as an example and support for others who wanted the continuation of Asherah in official Yawheism. Over time, Jezebel’s polyamorous spirituality became confused and conflated with the physical act of intercourse. Thus, Jezebel the harlot who worshiped Asherah became Jezebel the slut.

By recasting Jezebel from a devout queen to an evil slut, those Hebrews who supported Asherah worship – especially the women – could be implicated for immorality because they followed in Jezebel’s footsteps. Women would have their honor and reputation denigrated if they were found to venerate Asherah, making women less likely to risk private rituals or pass that knowledge on to their children. Public rituals would become a source of shame, something ‘good girls’ didn’t do. Worshiping Asherah had come to mean that a woman was like Jezebel, and no one wanted to be an evil slut in the eyes of her people. The flame of Asherah was rapidly snuffed out after her followers were branded de facto sluts.

Jezebel was slut shamed in order to control an entire culture and eradicate the last traces of Asherah.


Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.

The Jezebel Effect book coverHave you heard that Catherine the Great died having sex with her horse? Or perhaps you prefer the story that Anne Boleyn had six fingers and slept with her brother? Or that Kathryn Howard slept with so many members of the Tudor court that they couldn’t keep track of them all? As juicy and titillating as the tales might be, they are all, patently untrue.

Modern PR firms may claim that no publicity is bad publicity, but that, too, is untrue. The fact that Cleopatra is better known for her seductions than her statecraft, and that Jezebel is remembered as a painted trollop rather than a faithful wife and religiously devout queen, isn’t a way for historians to keep these interesting women in the public eye, rather it’s a subversion of their power, a re-writing of history to belittle and shame these powerful figures, preventing them from becoming icons of feminine strength and capability. This is The Jezebel Effect.


Ackerman, Susan. (1993) “The Queen Mother and the cult in ancient Israel” Journal of Biblical Literature p. 385-401.
Cohen, Daniel. (2010) “Asherah: Hidden Goddess of the Bible” in Goddesses in World Culture
Dever, William G. (2012) The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect
Kein, Jenny. (2000) Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism
Hadley, Judith M. (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess
McKinlay, Judith E. (2004) Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus
Moascati, Sabitino. (2001) The Phoenicians
Seeman, Don. (2004) “The Watcher at the Window: Cultural Poetics of a Biblical Motif” In Prooftexts 24:1
Silver, Morris. (1995) Economic Structures of Antiquity
Yee, Gale A. (2003) Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible

Biblical quotes are from The New International Version (NIV).

Not Quite First Lady – Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

The Presidential campaign of 1828 was brutal. Andrew Jackson felt that the election of 1824 had been stolen from him (he won the popular vote) and John Quincy Adams was defending his position as incumbent. Although it was considered undignified for the candidate to campaign, their supporters pulled out all the stops even attacking the wives. Louisa Catherine Adams was considered by many a foreigner who brought unwelcome influence to Washington, (she was born and raised in England, although her parents were Americans), but the worst criticism was reserved for Rachel Jackson. Called a whore, a bigamist, and an unsophisticated westerner (my goodness she smoked a pipe!), many considered her unqualified to inhabit the White House.

When Rachel Donelson was 12 years old, her family left Virginia to travel to the frontier of Tennessee. The trip was arduous and the situation with the Indians unsettled, but eventually they established themselves as one of the most prominent families in the area. They built a palisade which surrounded the family home and several cabins where boarders lived. This is where Rachel and Andrew met and fell in love. Rachel was a beautiful young woman and Andrew was tall and handsome with an instinct to protect women. Rachel may have seemed like she needed protecting – from her husband, her first husband.

A few years earlier, when the situation with the Indians was very dangerous, the family briefly moved to Kentucky. There Rachel met and married Lewis Robards. The Donelsons and Robards were of similar social standing and circumstances. Lewis was from a large family who welcomed and liked Rachel. It seemed like a good match. And it was for a while, but the vivacious and friendly nature of Rachel that attracted Lewis became a problem. She was raised with seven brothers and quite innocently enjoyed the company of men, but Lewis was of a jealous nature. By 1788, the situation had become unbearable and Rachel’s brother came to get her, bringing her home to her family in Tennessee. It is unsure whether Rachel intended the move to be permanent or not, but later in the year Lewis followed her to Nashville and moved in with her and her family.

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

It was during this time that Andrew Jackson moved to Nashville. Rachel and Andrew were attracted to each other, but there is no evidence that their relationship was inappropriate. However, Lewis couldn’t accept this; he forbid her to talk to Jackson and interrogated her about the few interactions they had. Finally, during the summer of 1789, Lewis made the mistake of telling other men that Jackson was too intimate with his wife. Lewis was not well-liked, but Jackson and the Donelson family were. Word got back to Jackson and he confronted Lewis and threatened to cut off his ears.

Rather than challenge Jackson to a duel, which he undoubtedly would have accepted, Lewis had a warrant issued against him. While traveling to see the magistrate, under armed guard, the looks that Jackson gave Lewis terrified him so much that he ran off. Of course the fact that the guards allowed Jackson to carry a knife and to chase after Lewis, may have had something to do with the fact that Lewis didn’t show up at the magistrate’s office. Without a complainant, the charges were dismissed. This was the last straw for Lewis, he left Tennessee and returned to Kentucky swearing to have nothing more to do with Rachel and her family.

By this time, Rachel and Andrew knew that they were in love and wanted to marry. While attitudes toward marriage and divorce were more relaxed in the west, including self-marriage and self-divorce determined by the families rather than a bureaucrat from across the mountains, the Donelsons liked to abide by the legal niceties when possible. This was particularly important with regard to property rights. Rachel’s father had died in 1885 and although his will had yet to be settled, anything that came to Rachel would legally belong to Lewis Robards.

Women had no legal right to divorce (at least none that would be acceptable to a southern judge), so the hope was that Lewis meant what he said and would file. In the meantime, the only option Rachel and Andrew had to live as husband and wife was to elope to an area beyond American Law. The closest place whether Andrew could hope to earn a living was Natchez (now in Mississippi) which was then still Spanish territory.  In the summer of 1789, Andrew began to establish connections there.

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

That fall, they heard rumors that Lewis was angry and preparing to come get Rachel and force her to return to Kentucky with him. He was within his legal rights to do so and Rachel and Andrew made a decision. In December of 1789, they boarded a flat boat and headed down the river. There is no documentary evidence that they married in Natchez, but there is evidence that they presented themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. They made connections with family friends and entertained, making no effort to hide who they were. Neither purchased land; presumably they rented with the intent of returning to Nashville when they could.

By July 1790, Lewis had not returned to Nashville and Rachel and Andrew decided to go home. The journey up Natchez Trace with an armed party was uneventful with one exception. One of their traveling companions knew Lewis Robards and later reported to him that Rachel and Andrew were living as husband and wife. This testimony was the tangible evidence he had been waiting for and he made a petition to the Virginia legislature for an action of divorce. This gave Lewis permission to sue Rachel for divorce in Kentucky supreme court. (Kentucky was still part of Virginia at the time.)

There were other requirements that had to be met: notice in the Kentucky Gazette, filing a writ in Kentucky, and taking depositions from witnesses. But, Lewis put off doing these things. Maybe because of anger toward Rachel or because of lingering hopes of receiving her inheritance, nevertheless, the divorce wasn’t finalized until three years later in September of 1793. The charge was adultery, but neither Rachel nor Andrew appeared in court. After all, they weren’t going to fight something they had been hoping for all along.

Rachel and Andrew had been living in Nashville as husband and wife since 1790, so they quietly married (remarried?) on January 17, 1794. They enjoyed their lives together and the events of the previous years receded into memory until the election of 1828.

In spite of the ugliness of the campaign, Jackson won the election by a landslide. Briefly, Rachel considered not going to Washington with Andrew, but they decided that that would be admitting they were wrong, which they didn’t believe. So Rachel prepared to become First Lady of the land. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. On December 22, 1828, Rachel Donelson Jackson died, leaving Andrew a deeply sad and embittered man. He would always blame those who attacked Rachel for her death. Two days later, Rachel was buried in the white satin gown she had planned to wear to the inaugural ball.

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Patricia Brady
C-SPAN: First Ladies Influence and Image – Rachel Jackson

Florence Harding – Wild Child

Young Florence Harding

In 1920, when Warren G. Harding was running for President of the United States, he had secrets to hide, many secrets; and they all had female names. In fact, one of his mistresses is the only person, that we know of, to successfully blackmail a presidential nominee. But, he wasn’t the only one with a past that they wanted to keep hidden. His wife Florence had a few indiscretions of her own.

Florence Kling Harding was supposed to be a boy, at least in the mind of her father. When Amos Kling and his wife, Louisa, were expecting their first child, he told everyone around town in Marion, Ohio, that the child would be a boy. Aside from just wanting a boy, Amos owned a successful hardware store which required much of his time; a son could work along side him and eventually take over the business. So on August 15, 1860 when Florence Mabel, Flossie, was born, although Amos resented the fact that she wasn’t a boy, he had a practical solution. He would raise her as if she were a boy.

From the time Flossie could walk, Amos took her with him to the store. It became an environment that she would always be comfortable in, the sights, smells, sounds, and the company of men. As she grew, Amos trained her in the running of the store and his other businesses as they came about. By the time Flossie was a teenager, Amos had expanded into banking, real estate, and land/tenant management. He had also become a very wealthy man.

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence’s education was extensive, including subjects not always studied by women such as math, rhetoric, logic, Greek, and Latin. She was also very active physically, running and playing with the neighborhood boys. Her favorite outdoor activity was horseback riding. Many of her Marian neighbors commented that she was the best horsewoman they had ever seen. (I suspect she was better than many of the men as well.)

All of this continued in spite of the fact that Florence had two younger brothers. Amos never switched his training to the boys. He was a tyrant in the home and it seems that Louisa and the two boys were more submissive, and thus less like Amos in personality than Florence. She was just as competitive and driven as he was and perhaps that’s why he seemed to favor her, but as is the case with many strong-willed children of overbearing parents, there came a time when Florence rebelled against Amos’ demands.

Florence also showed a talent for music. She spent hours practicing the piano, one time for eight hours, until her fingers bled. Music for the sake of art didn’t mean anything to Amos, but he was a firm believer that a woman should be able to provide for herself if necessary. For this reason, he allowed Florence to enroll at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, so that she would have a means to support herself by giving piano lessons. Her ambition, however, was to become a concert pianist.

Amos Kling

Amos Kling

Cincinnati was the country’s center of culture in the west and it opened up a new world to Florence. A world that she reveled in, a world with new people and experiences, but more importantly, a world of independence. After only a year, Amos called Florence home. Whether it was to take care of things at home while her mother was ill, as he said, or because he wanted to reign in his newly liberated daughter, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, he released a tiger that he couldn’t put back in the cage.

Amos tried to impose his own standards on Florence once again and their arguments were long and loud, sometimes lasting all night and heard in the street outside their home. More than once he locked her out of the house when she didn’t return before curfew. Sometimes she crawled into the window of her best friend Carrie Phillips, but other times who knows. Amos particularly disliked the fact that she was *gasp* hanging around the new roller rink in town.

Roller skating was a new fad that was sweeping the country. It gave young men and women a chance to socialize and listen to music, and if a few proprieties were breached well, you had to keep your balance, right? In fact the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1885 passed on a minister’s warning that roller skating rinks “corrupt the morals of all who associate with them.” As might be expected, it wasn’t long before Florence became interested in a young man, Henry De Wolfe, Pete to his friends. Amos was livid, which of course made Pete that much more attractive.

Couple roller skatingFor young women who feel trapped at home, there is one way of escape which has often been used, although it can sometimes have dire consequences. Florence had never expressed a desire to marry or have children and a family like her mother. She had been greatly inspired by Clara Baur, the unmarried founder of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music who was a proponent of careers for women. But at the end of 1879, she found herself in trouble. Trouble that could provide a way out of her father’s house.

Kathleen Lawler, Florence’s long-time assistant said that Florence became pregnant to get away from Amos. Florence herself didn’t admit it, but in her diary early in 1880, she makes a cryptic statement: “Vice often comes in at the door of necessity, not at the door of inclination.”

Pete was fun-loving and handsome, and he drank to excess. Just a year older than Florence, they grew up across the street from each other. Pete’s father, Simon, was one of the few men in town who wasn’t afraid of Amos Kling and there was no love lost between the two, so when Pete and Florence took up with each other people held their breath waiting for the explosion which was sure to occur. Neither family approved, but Simon was a different kind of man than Amos and when Pete told him that he had gotten Florence pregnant, Simon told him to take her up to “Columbus, and get married as soon as possible.” So in March 1880, Florence and Pete eloped to Columbus to get married. But, they didn’t.

Carl Anthony, Florence’s biographer, states in his book that there is no record of a marriage between a Kling and a DeWolfe for 10 years before or after 1880 in Franklin County (Columbus), Marion County, or in Crawford County, where they soon set up housekeeping. Florence may or may not have wanted it that way, but Amos had to believe that they were married to prevent him trying to force her back home. And it worked. Not only did Amos leave Florence to her “marriage”, he cut her off and refused to talk to her.

Life with Pete was difficult. They tried to run a roller skating rink, but failed, and Pete didn’t adjust well to the responsibility of a family. He would be gone for days at a time and finally, before their son Marshall was two years old, he deserted them. Florence had no choice except to return to Marion. A friend’s father was kind enough to allow her to stay at their house as she began to teach piano lessons, until she finally was able to raise enough to get a small apartment of her own.

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Even though Florence’s marriage was from all appearances a common law marriage, she did finally get a divorce from Pete in 1886. At that time there was some communication between Amos and Florence and he offered to provide for Marshall. The conditions were that Marshall would live in the Kling home and take the Kling name. Florence agreed.

Amos may have hated losing control of Florence, and hated the choices she made, but he had given her the tools to make them. She was now on her own, independent, free of responsibility for anyone but herself, and she set out to start over. She also set her sights on the dashing young publisher of The Marion Star, Warren G. Harding.

Young Warren Harding

Warren Harding

First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
The Library Company of Philadelphia: “Roller Skating Fun

Lola Montez – “Countess for an Hour”

Lola Montez c. 1847 by Joseph Karl Stieler (source)

There are contradictions and unknown facts surrounding the fascinating life of Lola Montez. Many of these were generated by Lola herself through two small autobiographies. She also wrote several performance scripts about her own life. She claimed to have been born in Limerick Ireland on June 23, 1818. At least that is the date on her tombstone, but her birth certificate came to light in the late 1990s correcting the first of many misconceptions about Lola.

Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born to Elizabeth Oliver and Edward Gilbert February 17, 1821. Elizabeth was fourteen when she married Edward on April 29, 1820 in Cork, Ireland, so it’s clear that Elizabeth was not pregnant with Eliza when she married as some have alledged. Edward, an Ensign in the 25th Foot Regiment was stationed in India in 1823 and took his family with him. Later that year, he died of cholera, and Elizabeth soon married Lieutenant Patrick Craigie.

Both her father and stepfather were good to Eliza, but when she was sent to Scotland for school, she didn’t adjust very well. She first lived with Craigie’s father, then with his sister, and then was sent to boarding school. One of her teachers described her as elegant, graceful, and beautiful, with an “air of haughty ease.” She was also extravagant, impetuous, and had a violent temper. But at this point, her misbehavior was limited to putting flowers in the wig of the man in front of her in church, and supposedly running through the streets naked.

When Eliza was reunited with her mother in 1837, her mother proposed an arranged marriage with a 64 year old widower. Her response was to elope with 31 year old Lieutenant Thomas James. Eliza and Thomas were properly married in Dublin by his brother, and headed back to India where Thomas was stationed. The marriage didn’t last long, however. We don’t know which of them, if either, strayed from the marriage, but when Lola left India, she took up with George Lennox on the ship on the way home. They were not very discreet and were observed both on the ship and in a London hotel together.

At the age of 20, Eliza, or Mrs. Betty James as she called herself, was estranged from her mother and had begun to develop a scandalous reputation by eloping, abandoning her husband, and then having an illicit affair. She also needed a way to support herself, so she decided to become a Spanish dancer. She took dance lessons and then traveled to Spain to learn Spanish and Spanish dance. On June 3, 1843, she made her debut at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, billed as Donna Lola Montez.

Lola’s talent was questionable, but she was considered to be extraordinarily beautiful with a fabulous figure. Unfortunately, she was recognized by someone in the audience who shouted her name calling her Betty James. Deciding that because of her reputation, London wasn’t the right place to perform, she left and began to tour Europe. In 1844, she met and had an indiscreet affair with Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer. When the affair died out, she decided to go to Paris.

In Paris, Lola’s career was not successful, but she had some success as a courtesan beginning an affair with Alexander Dujarier, a young newspaper editor and owner. With Dujarier she was part of a literary crowd where she met and was rumored to have an affair with Alexander Dumas, pere. In 1845, Dujarier died in a duel unrelated to Lola. After the trial where his assailant was acquitted, she left Paris to go to Munich.

Presenting herself to the Bavarian court as a Spanish noblewoman, Lola became acquainted with King Ludwig I. He was captivated by her and made her his official mistress. Ludwig lavished gifts on Lola including a house with all the trappings and a substantial income. On his birthday, February 17, 1847, he went so far as to make her Countess Marie von Landsfeld, and bestow Bavarian citizenship on her.

Not content to be only a mistress, Lola began to give him advice about politics, typically siding with the middle class and students. This didn’t sit well with his aristocratic advisers and councilors, but in time, Lola’s extravagant lifestyle even turned the lower classes against her. Faced with evidence of her duplicity, Ludwig stood by her, but revolution was in the making and Lola was forced to flee the country after a mob destroyed much of her home. Eventually, Ludwig was forced to abdicate and go into exile. Although Lola continued to write passionate letters to Ludwig (and ask for money), they weren’t reunited and Lola returned to London.

At this point, Lola’s exploits were being followed in the press, and satirized in the theater. In April 1848 “Pas de Fascination, or Catching a Governor” premiered in London as “Lola Montez or Countess for an Hour” by J Sterling Coyne. When she returned to London, Lola may have kept a low profile, but that didn’t stop her from marrying George Trafford Heald in 1848. The problem was, that although Thomas James had gotten an official separation from the Church of England, divorces at the time could only be granted by an act of Parliament, so Lola wasn’t officially divorced. George’s aunt became suspicious and brought a bigamy suit against her. With a warrant out for Lola’s arrest the couple was forced to flee. For a couple of years, they lived in France and Spain, but soon the relationship faltered and Lola once again took off to reinvent herself, this time to the United States.

Caricature of Lola leaving Europe for America (source)

By this time, Lola was no longer an unknown. Her life had been widely reported in the English speaking world. Nevertheless, she traveled and performed in the eastern US from 1851 to 1853 before heading off to San Francisco, arriving in May 1853. In July, Lola entered into her third “marriage” to a reporter named Patrick Purdy Hull. The marriage lasted less than 3 months and she bought a mine in northern California where she settled down for a while until 1855.

Lola had always been volatile, but her raving seemed to increase during this time. She was suffering from severe headaches and poor health. She specifically railed against the Jesuits, accusing them of trying to poison her and shooting at her. A number of humorous plays had been written about her life and performed in Europe, and these were performed in California. She also wrote her autobiography which was filled with misinformation, possibly to try to counteract some of the negative things that had been written about her in the press and for the stage. It’s possible that her delusions of grandeur and feelings of paranoia at this time were the result of syphilis spreading to her brain.

In June of 1855, Lola decided to resume her career with a tour of Australia. She met with mixed reviews. In Melbourne, the theater audience began to decline after a review saying that her performance was “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.” At Castlemaine, however, she received rave encores from a crowd of miners and the members of the Municipal Council. At one point, she attacked a reporter with a bullwhip in response to a bad review.

On May 22, 1856, Lola left Australia to return to San Francisco. On the return voyage, the man she had been involved with during her tour, and who had been acting as her manager, Frank Folland, fell overboard. It is unknown whether or not it was an accident or suicide, but his death seemed to have a profound impact on Lola. She sold her jewelry and gave the money to Folland’s children in an act that seemed out of character for her.

Lola Montez c. 1851 (source)

Either because of Folland’s death, or because she was tired of the constant battles for the affection of the public, she gave up performing and began writing and lecturing, usually on topics related to beauty and the evils of Catholicism. She lectured in the US, Ireland, and London. Briefly, she tried to reestablish herself in London, but went into debt and fled creditors by returning to New York. For the last two years of her life, she joined the church and began the life of a reformer, working with prostitutes. She lived these years largely in poverty and after a series of strokes died on January 17, 1861. Her tombstone read Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.

Lola was portrayed by Carol Martine in the film Lola Montès (1955) directed by Max Ophüls. The film was refurbished and re-released in 2008 and featured at the Telluride and Cannes film festivals. You can see the trailer here.

Lola Montès trailer

Notorious Australian Women by Kay Saunders