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Sissy Beddowes

Howard Tabor has written several articles about an incongruous trinity of women important to turn-of-the-century Agincourt: Maud Adams, Annabelle Miller and Sissy Beddowes. Attend the tale of their odd affiliation.

Maud Adams (née Baldwin) came to Agincourt in 1888 when her husband B.F. won the masonry contract for Fennimore county’s second courthouse. He fell from faulty scaffolding, ruptured his spleen, a died a dew days later, leaving his pregnant widow with small savings and no social safety net. Soon after the birth of their daughter Amanda in 1889, Mrs Adams accepted an offer from her neighbors to open a restaurant that would highlight her baking skills. In short order she returned the favor, employing a series of young women in a virtual finishing school that continued to her death in the 1940s.

Annabelle Miller (née Schwert) would seem to be Adams’ antithesis. The Millers ran a tobacco shop behind the old Hazzard House Hotel, aptly named for the number of fires that eventually caused its demise. Mr Miller died in 1893 or 1894, probably from tuberculosis, and also left his widow with little means of support. Her brother Armand Schwert came to Belle’s questionable rescue, remodeling a stable at the rear of the property, adapting it as a House of Ill Repute and making his sister a de facto madam. A comparable number of young women passed through Mrs Miller’s dubious employment. 

Circe_offering_the_cup_to_odysseus

Sissy Beddowes, the third leg of this odd triangle, was the wife of carpenter and former U.S. Indian Agent Amos Beddowes, a Connecticut native who had settled on the banks of the Muskrat River years before there was an Agincourt. In his government role, Amos had worked closely with the Sac and Fox tribes, earliest inhabitants of this part of Iowa; so closely, in fact, that he married a young Native woman whose name translates She-Listens-to-the-Moon, medicine woman to her people. The connection between the moon and medicine suggested Circe, Greek goddess associated with each of those ideas, as her English name. Circe morphed into Sissy, whose knowledge of seeds, herbs and roots easily exceeded the local medical profession’s. In 1910 she even shared her herbal wisdom at Chicago’s homeopathic college.

How, you might well ask, did these three disparate lives intertwine? That’s easy: sex and its unregulated consequence.

Some of Belle Miller’s employees inevitably became pregnant. If Sissy Beddowes’ concoctions couldn’t terminate the pregnancy, then Maud Adams would shelter the girls through their “lying in” and work with Doc Fahnstock to legitimize the birth and place the child through private adoption. Tres discrete! [Read earlier blog entries for the story of Neil Klien, who entered life precisely this way.]

My point here is to put nineteenth-century pharmaceuticals in perspective: Folk wisdom was the basis for drug conglomerates of the twentieth century, but it never entirely disappeared. I remember my father accepting folk remedies–mustard plasters, corn squeezins and sheep-shit tea–from customers at our gas station, Black emigrants from the South who had come to work the factories of Chicago; people I knew who were at most three generations from slavery. I also recall that these homespun remedies worked!

Community-based folk wisdom was effective; it had a multi-generational record of success. “Snake oil” wasn’t, because it was ephemeral, opportunistic and motivated by greed.


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