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Daredevil Ladies

Well-behaved women seldom make history, as historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said. Julie Cummins’ new book, “Women Daredevils, Thrills, Chills, and Frills,” introduces ten somewhat ill-behaved but admirable women to young readers.

          Between 1880 and 1929, women could be found performing all kinds of stunts that defied expectations of what proper ladies should be doing. Cummins starts with  “Zazel” (born Rosa Richter in 1862), the child of a circus performer who gained fame as the first woman to be shot from a cannonball. In 1901, a widowed schoolteacher went over Niagara Falls in a barrel for one reason: she needed the money she hoped to earn from her stunt. (She survived the fall but died poor.) A teenager who weighed less than ninety pounds made aviation history by “performing the first parachute jump – from a trapeze that was swinging below a hot-air balloon.”

Scariest of all, Cummins tells us, was the “Dip of Death” that involved riding down a steep incline “with the speed of an express train. When it reached the curve, the car turned upside down and shot into space across a forty-foot chasm. It landed right side up on another ramp and then looped a loop before finishing the run.” No wonder that performer Isabelle Butler could find no company that dared to issue a life insurance policy on her. 

          Cummins has researched female daredevils in aviation, cycling, and the circus. The stories are incredible enough to stand alone, but Cheryl Harness’s portraits of each woman add dramatic details. Readers nine and up who thrill to these stories will also enjoy Cummins’ “Tomboy of the Air: Daredevil Pilot Blanche Stuart Scott.”

          The next time you visit a Civil War battlefield, bring along a copy of Anita Silvey’s “I Will Pass as Your Comrade,” a fascinating account of women who disguised themselves as men so they could fight in the Civil War.

          Given the place of women at the time – Silvey tells us they were expected to be “submissive, modest, religious, and focused on family and home” - it’s astonishing to learn that, for example, twenty women from Winchester organized a volunteer regiment (the Secretary of War declined their help). Others worked as laundresses or sutlers, sometimes learning how to handle a musket and finding themselves under fire.

          But what prompted women to take the double risk of posing as men and fighting in battle? Sometimes they wanted to be near a loved brother, husband or sweetheart, like Melverina Elverina Peppercorn, who wanted to fight next to her twin brother. Others were already passing as men so that they could make a better living and just continued the deception when war broke out.

At least six women soldiers stayed undiscovered until they gave birth, causing a Union officer to write that “a corporal was promoted to sergeant for gallant conduct at the battle of Fredericksburg – since which time the sergeant has become the mother of a child.”

Some female soldiers, like Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who fought as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, wrote that “I would not have missed it [the first Battle of Bull run] for the wealth of the world…” Others were horrified by the carnage on the battlefield. Every story is fascinating, and Silvey’s enthusiasm for her subject is sure to keep readers ten and up turning the pages.

Originally published in the 3/24/09 Free Lance-Star newspaper.