Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa


il·le·git·i·ma·cy /ˈˌi(l)ləˈjidəməsē/


1.the state of not being in accordance with accepted standards or rules; lack of authorization by the law.

2.the state of being born to parents not lawfully married to each other.

Bastardy, the state or condition of children borne out of wedlock, is a 19th century concept with little use or meaning in the 21st. Marriage itself has far more importance as a legal concept—the legitimacy of children for the orderly passing of real property to the next generation—than it does in religion. Among the Puritans of New England, in fact, marriage was considered a civil procedure for precisely that reason. In my view, it is one of the better arguments in support of same-gender marriage. To more fully understand the consequences of bastardy, read Dickens.

Here and there in these pages are hints regarding a kind of “Illegitimacy Underground” in late 19th and early 20th century Agincourt. This entry may serve to flesh that story out, fill some gaps, correct any conflicts, all of which seems high time. The chief characters were Mrs Casius Hyde Miller (better known as Belle), Circe Beddowes, Maud Adams, Martha Tennant, and the redoubtable Dr Rudyard Fahnstock, MD. This quintumvirate formed in spite of itself to address the very real problems of illegitimacy in their community. Each played a distinct role in its operation.

Belle Miller: Circumstance—why is it we habitually fall back on circumstances?—made Mrs Miller a widow far sooner than she might. With half a business and twice the responsibility at an time when retirement and death were nearly synonymous, her younger brother, a man of the world, set Mrs M up in business as a madam; when the film is cast, she’ll be played by Amanda Blake. Her employees, as you might expect, had the occasional conceptual issue which required medical attention.

Circe Beddowes: Enter Mrs Beddowes (a.k.a., She-listens-to-the-moon), a Sac & Fox medicine woman, skilled in the herbal arts. She had actually taught a course in herbal medicine at the Hahnemann Hospital in Chicago. Caught early enough, Mrs Beddowes could induce miscarriage with a potion of leaves, roots, bark, and berries. But if things were too far advanced…

Maud Adams: Maud Adams found room in the dormitory where her restaurant staff lived en famille, where the pregnancy could be carried to term with a house mother and surrogate sisters in attendance. In several of those situations, the girls often changed careers and performed a different socially-acceptible kind of service. When their time came…

Martha Tennant: Martha Tennant served as midwife (in the room where her son Anson would subsequently dream of becoming an architect)—a stable, funnily enough, because there was no room at the metaphorical inn. It was Mrs Tennant who bankrolled the entire operation, though her husband Jim knew full well what was going on but deferred to his wife’s better instincts. [You should know, too, that when she herself was widowed, Martha joined a religious order and converted the house to hospice care.] Mrs Tennant was also on exceptionally good terms with her clerical neighbors: Rev. Stephen Grimaldi and then his successor Fr. Chilton Fanning Dowd at St. Joe’s, and Rev. Frances Manning across the street at St Ahab’s. Legitimacy can be helped along with the right imprimatur.

Rudyard Fahnstock: Doc Fahnstock took his hippocratic oath seriously—today he wouldn’t ask your sexual orientation before deciding to provide medical service—and would not perform abortions, except in the case of the mother’s health. He did render assistance when required at the birthing, but his larger contributions were the preparation of birth certificates to deal with the very issue that began this post, legitimacy, and a discreet supply of birth preventatives, which might have resolved the matter at the outset. He and Mrs Tennant also found homes for the infants with far less paper trail than might otherwise have been dictated by state law. Collectively, the five of them ran an underground orphanage, thereby avoiding the stain which bastardy would leave, a social label for all to see.

Sissy Beddowes was the first to die; she was the group’s eldest by far, followed closely by Belle Miller. Doctor Fahnstock practiced medicine until his own end, when his practice was carried on by Henk Cuijpers with comparable compassion. Maud Adams left us in 1943 and then, five years later to the day, it was Martha Tennant’s time. By then, however, the secret society they’d formed was common knowledge. Indeed, it may always have been. Secrets are hard to keep in a small town like ours.

Martha Tennant (known to only a few as Mother Martha Mary, SSM) enjoyed a funeral like few others in Agincourt history. Her competitors for that honor would have been all the others in their group, I suspect. Someone—still unidentified and likely to remain that way—knew most of the story and was able to fill the blanks with quiet inquiry. The beneficiaries of their work, the young women, their newborns who grew, married, and had families of their own; all who were complicit one way or another, numbered in the dozens, if not well over a hundred. All those who attended the funeral (with requiem masses at both St Joe and St Ahab) and then walk with the horse-drawn wagon that bore her to The Shades would each wear red socks as signs of solidarity.

There can’t have been that many pairs of red hosiery in all of northwestern Iowa, so I’m guessing several die pots were called into service, because the blaze of crimson, scarlet, vermillion, cerise, cardinal, and carmine along the way set the pavement ablaze. A veritable barometer of the compound benefit a little good can do.

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