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Wild Women of the West: Pauline Cushman

One of the most glamorous and perhaps most tragic of the “glamour girls” of the West was also a Union spy during the Civil War.

May 07, 2019

One of the most glamorous and perhaps most tragic of the “glamour girls” of the West was the beautiful Pauline Cushman, who during the Civil War served as a Union spy.  Her pictures show she possessed a gypsylike beauty, with long black hair, and her voice was likened to that of a lark. Pauline was born in New Orleans on June 10, 1833, but in the 1840s the family moved to Michigan, where Pauline’s father opened a frontier trading post.  Her youth was spent in the forest among the Chippewas, who called her Laughing Breeze.

At eighteen, Pauline ran away to join a theatrical troupe; within a year, she was playing the leading role.  In 1863, while starring in Wood’s Theater in Louisville, Tennessee, she agreed to become a Union agent for William Truesdail, chief of the secret police of the Army of the Cumberland.  On the way to Nashville, she was picked up by a Rebel scouting party belonging to John Hunt Morgan’s command, but Morgan freed her. Not long thereafter, she was recaptured by some of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men, who found in her boots some sketches of the fortifications of Shelbyville.  She was courtmartialed and found guilty. While she was awaiting sentence, William Stake Rosecrans launched his attack on Shelbyville and the Rebels evacuated the town. Pauline was transferred from the prison to a boarding house where she was given the best of care.

In 1864, Pauline Cushman embarked on a triumphant theatrical career, reciting a dramatic version of her adventures and making the newspaper headlines as she moved from town to town.  Pauline and her troupe toured the country from New York to San Francisco, playing to the wildest audiences on the frontier. Many fired six-shooters at the ceiling to signal their appreciation of the performance.

In a town south of San Francisco, Pauline made headlines of another sort.  She was part owner of a hotel called La Honda, and had stopped off to manage it for a while between engagements.  When she heard another hotel manager make remarks questioning her virtue, she grabbed a stagecoach driver’s whip and flogged the slanderer unmercifully.

In 1879, she married Jere Fryer and settled in Casa Grande, Arizona, where she became unofficial referee of six gun battles.  One on occasion she stood in the center of the dirt street, sixshooter in hand, while the leaders of two rival factions fought it out.  One fighter had drawn too slow and died on his feet, so Pauline dressed his corpse, said the prayers for the dead, and buried him. On another occasion, armed with a rifle she climbed to the top of a corral fence next to the hotel she owned and ordered one of the mule skinners to “cut out” a sick animal in his team.  The skinner promptly told her to go to hell, so Pauline aimed her rifle directly at his heart and told him she was only counting to three. At the count of two, the skinner relented.

But all these adventures did not make for a happy life in Casa Grande, for her husband, handsome and wild, had a roving eye and broke Pauline’s heart.  She loved him dearly and tried to overlook his wandering affections, even attempting to hold Fryer by claiming the infant of a prostitute as her own. Her husband was proud of his fatherhood, and for a while stopped his roving.  But the child died during a convulsion before he was two, the real mother spoke up, and Pauline’s plot was exposed. Broken-hearted and ashamed, Pauline left town to return to the stage. Nobody was interested in the Civil War, the producers told her, and she was already a legend which could not be improved upon.

By this time, Pauline Cushman was an old woman who dressed in a fashion twenty years out of date.  Her voice was hoarse, her hair streaked with gray, and her skin dried by the hot desert sun. She was reduced to scrubbing floors in the San Francisco theaters where men had once fired their six-shooters in tribute to her.  On December 7, 1893, her landlady force in the door of her tiny flat and found Pauline Cushman – Union spy, theatrical agent, frontier woman – dead, an apparent suicide. She was saved from burial in potter’s field by the Grand Army of the Republic.  The plaque they mounted above her grave reads, “Pauline Cushman, Federal Spy and Scout of the Cumberland.”

Looking for more Wild Women of the West stories? Read about dancer Loie Fuller!

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