Thursday, June 23, 2011

Martin, Mary Jane Jackson

(An undated column from the Fort Madison newspaper)

It was a much bigger challenge then, more than 100 years ago than it would be today, but Mrs. Charles Martin met it triumphantly, a triumph made even greater because as a child she had led a sheltered life in Virginia cared for and waited on by slaves.
Her maiden name was Mary Jane Jackson and when she was in her early teens her family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where she entered a private school taught by Charles Martin.
As sometimes happened, teacher and student fell in love. Marriage followed and they settled down in Columbus. Children were born to them before they decided to try their fortunes in Iowa. They came to Fort Madison and were living here when word came that gold had been found at Sutter's Mill in California in 1849.
Like so many men hereabouts, Charles caught the gold fever.
"It's my big chance," he told Mary Jane. "It's the one thing we've been waiting for.
I owe it to you and the family to go." More children had been born to them since coming to Fort Madison, but whatever misgivings Mary Jane had she kept them to herself.
"I'll look after things here, Charles," she said quietly, "don['t] worr[y] about us."
So Charles Martin joined a westbound wagon train, crossed the Great Plains and the Rockies to California where he found death instead of gold.
At home here in Fort Madison Mary Jane faced the bleak prospect of supporting herself and her children. .
Charles' brother, a New York attorney, came here and helped her buy a house at 932 Avenue D, now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Shepherd. He also brought her a sewing machine, a foot treadle Singer with wooden bobbins which is still a treasured family antique.
Sewing had always been a hobby and Mary Jane had made most of the clothing she and her children wore. Now it offered her one of the few opportunities open to the women of that day to make a living.
Later she married and became Mrs. Allen but not till after she had established
herself as a successful seamstress here.
Among other things Mary Jane was a crack shot with a pistol, an accomplishment dating back to her girlhood, and this led to an incident that kept Fort Madison chuckling for a week or more.
As her dress-making increased, Mary Jane had so little time to look after her home that she hired a woman to come in regularly and take care of it. This woman's husband wore a tall stovepipe hat like the one Abe Lincoln wore, and he did little but wear it and abuse his wife when he was in a bad humor which was quite often.
"Abuse her?" echoed the neighbors. "He just naturally beats the living daylights
out of her."
One day after a particularly bad session the woman staggered into Mary Jane's
home. "I just can't take it no longer," she moaned. "He mighty near killed me today."
Mary Jane said nothing. She put down the dress she was sewing, went into the bedroom, came out with the big horse pistol she kept there. Concealing it in the billowing folds of her dress, she walked to the woman's house and waited outside.
Presently the husband swaggered out wearing his stovepipe hat. Without a word
Mary Jane lifted the big pistol and shot a hole through the top of the hat.
"Let that be a lesson to you," she said calmly. "And remember: next time you beat your wife, I'll shoot again and I'll shoot lower."
Then she turned and went home, leaving the husband there too terrified to move. And never again did he risk so much as a playful slap at his wife.

(Article found and retyped by Laurie Thomas Parker)

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