Intro from Jay Allison: For Memorial Day, Transom is featuring an unusual veteran's story. "Jennie's Secret" is about a woman who posed as a man during the Civil War and went on to live most of her life as a man in the tiny town of Saunemin, Illinois. Over the years the town has been ambivalent about their most famous citizen and is struggling to figure out how to honor the memory of Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier.Producer Linda Paul became "obsessed" with this story and tracked down all sorts of interesting people to talk to. It's the kind of piece that was once easy to place in a public radio magazine show, but it's eighteen minutes long and it's not news. That makes it an orphan these days. It's worth pondering what we should do with stories like this--when an obsessed producer and a fascinating story converge, and the story isn't news and doesn't fit the mold.
About Jennie’s Secret
I don’t remember how I first encountered the story of Civil War veteran Jennie Hodgers (aka Albert Cashier), but I was smitten from the start. I was amazed that hundreds of women had posed as men during the Civil War. I couldn’t imagine how she (or they) pulled it off. And I was positively gob-smacked when I found out that Hodgers went on to spend most of her adult life – as a man – in the tiny town of Saunemin, Illinois. That’s just 12 miles down the road from Pontiac in Livingston County. And Pontiac is where my family comes from.
For me though, probably the most fascinating part of this project was trying to unpeel the onion to find a more nuanced portrait of Jennie Hodgers. I found a person who could be kind to children, offering them a treat whenever they came to her home. But there was also a hot-headed, disingenuous, petty and unquestionably eccentric Jennie Hodgers. She had her foibles, just like the rest of us.
We hear about her darker side in the letters that Sammuel Pepper, a fellow soldier, wrote home to his wife. I got to those letters through the footnotes of an amazing book by Lauren Cook and Deanne Blanton. It’s called, “They fought like Demons – Women Soldiers of the Civil War” and I recommend it to everybody.
When I met Frank and Velma Crawford (who are in possession of over 200 of Samuel Pepper’s letters) they read me a newly discovered letter about Cashier with even more explicit information about his/her wartime experience. So hopefully this radio story deepens the historical record about Jennie Hodgers.
More nuanced information about Jennie Hodgers also came courtesy of Cathy Lannon. Today Cathy is a lawyer, but back in 1969 she wrote her master’s thesis about Hodgers’ life. Lannon was from Saunemin and interviewed older people in town who still remembered Hodgers. Here’s one story Cathy Lannon told me. You’ll see that she (and a lot of people in Saunemin) refer to Cashier as “he.”
Lannon’s great grandparents lived across the street from Albert Cashier and often invited him (her) over for meals. But that overture wasn’t always met with the gratitude that you might expect:
A few years before the rest of the world found out about Cashier’s true gender, Cathy Lannon’s great grandmother made the discovery. She had heard that Albert was sick one day and so she asked a nurse to go over to help him out. In short order the nurse came running back and spluttered,“ Mrs. Lannon, he’s a full fledged woman!“ The nurse was so upset that she packed up and left town and Lannon’s great-grandmother in a great act of empathy, didn’t tell anyone about it, including her husband.
When I first approached Jay Allison about this story, the only tape I had was of 93 year-old Nina Chesebro. Her great-uncle is the one who first hired Albert Cashier (Jennie Hodgers) as a farmhand when (s)he got to town.
I pretty much cornered Jay at a Third Coast Festival conference. He didn’t know me, but sat there anyway and listened to some tape. And then he said he bet we could make a story of it.
See what can happen when you go to Third Coast.
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I was obsessed with the history of Cashier’s life. Just such a wild story. But Jay wanted to know more about the people who objected to restoring the house. After all, it’s been moved at least nine times. One time it was almost burned down in a practice drill for the Saunemin fire department. I mean the town didn’t seem too invested in the thing. And Jay wanted to know more about that.
That tack, I think, was fruitful. Because it turns out that there’s a long history of ambivalence in town about their most famous citizen. And bringing that angle together with the current effort to re-build the house gave us a frame to tell the history part.
I have almost no experience using music in stories. Usually I stick to natural sound. But there were lots of scenes in this story that had no sound. Jay was nice enough to select the music and indeed, to edit and mix the entire story.
I used an RE-50 microphone and a Sony mini-disc MZ B-100 to record this story. When I record I like to keep everything simple. I’m busy enough trying to track what people are saying. I don’t want to worry too much about complicated equipment.
I once heard Nancy Updike talk about making her stunning documentary about military contractors working in Iraq. If I remember correctly, she also used a Sony mini-disc recorder. She squeezed her entire documentary out of that little silver box.
I want to thank Al Arnolts, the informal “town historian” in Saunemin. He was always patient and kind in guiding me to information I needed for this story.
And finally, a word about Betty Estes: Betty is mentioned just briefly in this story. But it’s largely through her efforts that the home of Albert Cashier still exists. Betty was the Director of Tourism in Pontiac and when the old Cashier house was about to go up in flames, it was Betty who convinced her mayor to move the house to Pontiac for safekeeping.
It was also Betty who started hauling busloads of tourists from Pontiac to Saunemin to see the grave of Albert DJ Cashier. And that’s when the town of Saunemin took notice and decided, well maybe we want that old house back after all.
Look at the picture of Cashier in 1913 (on the right) and you can see that late in life her sartorial tastes still ran to high collars around the neck. Maybe because she didn’t want people to notice that she didn’t have much of an Adam’s apple.
Cashier/Hodgers would have been 69 in that picture. She looks so calm and unassuming. Who could imagine that she led the life she did?
Today in 2009, I have the feeling everybody wants a little piece of Jennie Hodgers. Civil war buffs, the Irish, the transgender community.. each wants to claim her.. and now, after many years – for the most part, even the town of Saunemin wants to claim her too.
Thanks to the Ruth Morehart Estate/Dwight Historical Museum for use of the photo at the top of this page.
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