Jane Swisshelm

Jane Swisshelm

Jane Cannon was born in Pittsburgh on 6th December, 1815. Her father died when she was eight year old, and Jane had to help her mother to support the family by lacemaking and at the age of fourteen became a schoolteacher.

In 1836 married James Swisshelm. The couple moved to Louisville, Kentucky and it was not long before she became involved in the campaign against slavery and became a member of the Underground Railroad.

In 1848 Swisshelm established her own anti-slavery newspaper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter. Swisshelm also used the newspaper to advocate women's rights. She was also paid $5 a week by Horace Greeley for contributing a weekly article for the New York Tribune. On 17th April, 1850, Swisshelm became the first woman to sit in the Senate press gallery.

Swisshelm moved to Minnesota and established the St. Cloud Visiter. She ran a column of comments and advice in response to readers' letters. In 1853, she published a collection of these columns in book form called Letters to Country Girls.

Swisshelm's newspaper office was attacked by an pro-slavery mob and her printing press was destroyed. Swisshelm purchased another and launched a new antislavery journal, the St. Cloud Democrat.

On the outbreak of the American Civil War Swisshelm sold her newspaper and worked as a nurse for the Union Army. She served as a nurse in Washington and Fredericksburg where she helped those soldiers wounded at the offensive at Wilderness in the summer of 1864.

After the war Swisshelm retired to Swissvale, Pennsylvania, where she wrote her autobiography, Half a Century (1880). Jane Swisshelm died in Swissvale on 22nd July, 1884.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jane Swisshelm wrote about starting her first newspaper in her autobiography, Half a Century (1880)

My paper was a six column weekly, with a small Roman letter head, my motto, "Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward."

It was quite an insignificant looking sheet, but no sooner did the American eagle catch sight of it, than he swooned and fell off his perch. Democratic roosters straightened out their necks and ran screaming with terror. Whig coons scampered up trees and barked furiously. The world was falling and every one had "heard it, saw it, and felt it."

It appeared that on some inauspicious morning each one of three-fourths of the secular editors from Maine to Georgia had gone to his office suspecting nothing, when from some comer of his exchange list there sprang upon him such a

horror as he had little thought to see.

A woman had started a political paper! A woman! Could he believe his eyes? A woman! Instantly he sprang to his feet and clutched his pantaloons, shouted to the assistant editor, when he, too, read and grasped frantically at his cassimeres, called to the reporters and pressmen and typos and devils, who all rushed in, heard the news, seized their nether garments and joined in the general chorus, "My breeches! oh, my breeches!" Here was a woman resolved to steal their pantaloons, their trousers, and when these were gone they might cry "Ye have taken away my gods, and what have I more?" The imminence of the peril called for prompt action, and with one accord they shouted, "On to the breach, in defense of our breeches! Repel the invader or fill the trenches with our noble dead."

(2) Jane Swisshelm, Letters to Country Girls (1853)

I am puzzled this week. Anniss asks me to "say something about those rich old farmers who make their wives work out in the fields, and leave their babies in the fence corners for the snakes to eat." She goes on to describe how the women, "after working in the fields until meal time, come home, cook, milk and churn, while the men lounge around and rest."

This is a very bad case, but a very common one, of the masculine-superiority fever which has converted so many millions of men into ruffians. I understand the disease very well, and can cure it easily when I have access to the patient, and can get my prescriptions administered.

These old fellows do not take the Visitor! I am too much out of "woman's sphere" to be tolerated in their august presence. No one has access to them but preachers and political stump speakers. They see no paper but a religious or political one. The former never speaks about woman, except to lecture her about her duties - her obligation to obey her husband - her vocation to forget herself and live only for the welfare of her liege lord and some particular church. The latter never speaks about woman or her interests a bit more than if such a creature never existed. The laws and policy they are discussing set her down midway between men and monkeys. She has no vote to solicit, no offices to confer, but is a kind of appendage to her master. Of course the ignorant boor gets a vast opinion of his own importance, as it is continually held up to view by church and state; and it cannot be wondered at that he practices what our divines, statesmen, philosophers, and poets teach.

He applies a common sense rule to the common principle, and argues "if Sallie has no right to hold office in church or

state - if she is to submit to me in all things, to keep silence in churches, and learn from me at home, of course I must be

wiser than she, and better too. The Constitution puts her down with "niggers" and ingins, or a little below 'em. She is

heaven's "last best gift to man," an' mighty useful one can make her! She can make hay as well as I can then cook the victuals while I'm restin', and raise some sons and darters in the meantime to take care uv me when I get old! Tell ye, there isn't a horse on the place I wouldn't rather lose nor Sallie!"

So he puts his wife into "a woman's place," and keeps her there. It is very well known that thousands nay, millions of women in this country are condemned to the most menial drudgery, such as men would scorn to engage in, and that for one-fourth wages; that thousands of women toil at avocations which public opinion pretends to assign to men. They plough, harrow, reap, dig, make hay rake, bind grain, thrash, chop wood, milk, churn, do any thing that is hard work, physical labor, and who says any thing against it? But let one presume to use her mental powers - let her aspire to turn editor, public speaker, doctor lawyer - take up any profession or avocation which is deemed honorable and requires talent, and O! bring the Cologne, get a cambric kerchief and a feather fan, unloose his corsets and take off his cravat! What a fainting fit Mr. Propriety has taken! Just to think that "one of the deah creatures," the heavenly angels, should forsake the spheres - woman's sphere - to mix with the wicked strife of this wicked world!

The efficient remedy for this class of evils is education; an equal education! If you wish to maintain your proper position in society, to command the respect of your friends now, and husbands and children in future, you should read, read - think, study, try to be wise, to know your own places and keep them, your own duties and do them. You should try to understand every thing you see and hear; to act and judge for yourselves; to remember you each have a soul of your own to account for; - a mind of your own to improve When you once get these ideas fixed, and learn to act upon them, no man or set of men, no laws, customs, or combination of them can seriously oppress you. Ignorance, folly and levity, are more or less essential to the character of a slave. If women knew their rights, and proper places, we would never I hear of men "making their wives" do this, that, or the other.

(3) In 1863 Jane Swisshelm visited Campbell Hospital in Washington. She wrote about the experience in her autobiography, Half a Century (1880)

I had sat by him but a few moments when I noticed a green shade on his face. It darkened, and his breathing grew labored - then ceased. I think it was not more than twenty minutes from the time I observed the green tinge until he was gone. I called the nurse, who brought the large man I had seen at the door of the bad ward, and now I knew he was a surgeon, knew also, by the sudden shadow on his face when he saw the corpse, that he was alarmed; and when he had given minute directions for the removal of the bed and its contents, the washing of the floor and sprinkling with chloride of lime, I went close to his side, and said in a low voice:

"Doctor, is not this hospital gangrene?"

He looked down at me, seemed to take my measure and answered:

"I am very sorry to say, madam, that it is."

"Then you want lemons!"

"We would be glad to have them!"

"Glad to have them?" I repeated, in profound astonishment, why, you must have them!"

He seemed surprised at my earnestness, and set about explaining:

"We sent to the Sanitary Commission last week, and got half a box.

"Sanitary Commission, and half a box of lemons? How many wounded have you?"

"Seven hundred and fifty."

"Seven hundred and fifty wounded men! Hospital gangrene, and half a box of lemons!"

"Well, that was all we could get; Government provides none; but our Chaplain is from Boston - his wife has written

to friends there and expects a box next week"

"To Boston for a box of lemons!"

I went to the head nurse who gave me writing materials, and I wrote a short note to the New York Tribune:

"Hospital gangrene has broken out in Washington, and we want lemons! lemons! lemons! lemons! No man or woman in health, has a right to a glass of lemonade until these men have all they need; send us lemons!"

I signed my name and mailed it immediately, and it appeared next morning. That day Schuyler Colfax sent a box to my lodgings, and five dollars in a note, bidding me send to him if more were wanting; but that day lemons began to pour into Washington, and soon, I think, into every hospital in the land. Governor Andrews sent two hundred boxes to the Surgeon General. I received so many, that at one time there were twenty ladies, several of them with ambulances, distributing those which came to my address, and if there was any more hospital gangrene that season I neither saw nor heard of it.

The officers in Campbell Hospital knew of the letter, and were glad of the supplies it brought, but some, time passed before they identified the writer as the little sister in the bad ward, who had won the reputation of being the "best wound-dresser in Washington."

(4) Jane Swisshelm, Half a Century (1880)

In making molds and rests for mangled limbs, I had large demands for little cushions, and without economy could not get enough. When one just fitted a place I wanted to keep it, and to do this, must have it aired, perhaps washed. To avoid lint dressings, I hunted pieces of soft, table linen, gave to patients pieces to suit, and as the supply was short they would get nurses and surgeons to leave their pieces of linen, after dressing their wounds until I should take charge, and have them cleansed for next time. To do all this, I must use the grass-plats and railings for airing and drying cushions and rags. These plats and railings were for ornament, and there was soon a protest against putting them to "such vile uses." I had gone into the hospital with the stupid notion that its primary object was the care and comfort of the sick and wounded. It was long after that I learned that a vast majority of all benevolent institutions are gotten up to gratify the aesthetic tastes of the public; exhibit the wealth and generosity of the founders, and furnish places for officers. The beneficiaries of the institutions are simply an apology for their existence, and having furnished that apology, the less said about them the better.

One day we had a particularly searching inspection, and next day nurse told me of some four new cases which had been brought in a week before, one of whom the inspectors said was past hope. I found his feet and legs with a crust on them like the shell of a snail; had a piece of rubber cloth laid under them, and with tepid water, a good crash towel, and plenty of rubbing, got down to the skin, which I rubbed well with lard. Then with fresh towels and water at hand, I drew away the sheet in which the patient had rolled his head, and while I washed his head and arms and breast, I talked, and he tried to answer.

When I had done washing and given directions to a nurse to cleanse the balance of his person, I asked if there was anything more I could do for him, when he stammered:

"Not unless you could get me a cup of tea - a cup of good green tea, without any milk or sugar in it."

(5) Jane Swisshelm, Half a Century (1880)

I was called at midnight to a death-bed. It was a case of flesh-wound in the thigh, and the whole limb was swollen almost to bursting, so cold as to startle by the touch, and almost as transparent as glass. I knew this was piemia and that for it medical science had no cure; but I wanted to warm that cold limb, to call circulation back to that inert mass. The first thought was warm, wet compresses, hot bricks, hot flannel; but the kitchen was locked, and it was little I could do without fire, except to receive and write down his dying messages to parents, and the girl who was waiting to be his wife.

When the surgeon's morning hour came he still lived; and at my suggestion the warm compresses were applied. He said, "they feel so good," and was quite comforted by them, but died about ten o'clock. I was greatly grieved to think he had suffered from cold the last night of life, but how avoid any number of similar occurrences? There was no artificial

heat in any of the wards. A basin of warm water was only to be obtained by special favor of the cooks.

I decided to lay my trouble before the cooks, who gathered to hear me tell the story of that death and of my sorrow that I could not drive away the cold on that last, sad night.

They all wiped their eyes on their aprons; head cook went to a cupboard, brought a key and handed it to me, saying:

"There, mother, is a key of this kitchen; come in here whenever you please. We will always find room on the ranges for your bricks, and I'll have something nice in the cupboard every night for you and the nurses."

This proved to be the key to the situation, and after I received that bit of metal from cook, there was not one death from piemia in any ward where I was free to work, although I have had as many, I think, as sixty men struck with the premonitory chill, in one night. I concluded that "piemia" was French for neglect, and that the antidote was warmth, nourishing food, stimulants, friction, fresh air and cheerfulness, and did not hesitate to say that if death wanted to get a man out of my hands, he must send some other agent than piemia. I do not believe in the medical theory concerning it; do not believe pus ever gets into the veins, or that there is any poison about it, except that of ignorance and indifference on the part of doctors and nurses.

(6) Jane Swisshelm worked at the Old Theater Hospital in Fredericksburg during the later stages of the American Civil War. She wrote about her experiences in her autobiography, Half a Century (1880)

This building was on Princess Ann street. The basement floor was level with the sidewalk, but the ground sloped upward at the back; so that the yard was higher than the floor.

The mud was running in from the yard. Opposite the door, in a small room, was a pile of knapsacks and blankets; and on them lay two men smoking. To get into the large room, I must step out of the hall mud over one man, and be careful not to step on another. I think it was six rows of men that lay close on the floor, with just room to pass between the feet of each row; they so close in the rows that in most places I must slide one foot before the other to get to their heads.

The floor was very muddy and strewn with debris, principally of crackers. There was one hundred and eighty-two men in the building, all desperately wounded. They had been there a week. There were two leather water-buckets, two tin basins, and about every third man had saved his tin-cup or canteen; but no other vessel of any sort, size or description on the premises - no sink or cesspool or drain. The nurses were not to be found; the men were growing reckless and despairing, but seemed to catch hope as I began to thread my way among them and talk.

I found some of the nurses - cowards who had run away from battle, and now ran from duty - galvanized them into

activity, invented substitutes for things that were wanting - making good use of an old knapsack and pocket-knife - and had tears of gratitude for pay.

One man lay near the front door, in a scant flannel shirt and cotton drawers, his left thigh cut off in the middle and the stump supported on the only pillow in the house. It was six by ten inches, stuffed with straw. His head was supported by two bits of board and a pair of very muddy boots. He called me, clutched my dress, and plead:

"Mother, can't you get me a blanket, I'm so cold; I could live if I could get any care!"

I went to the room where the men lay smoking on the blankets; but one of them wearing a surgeon's shoulder straps, and speaking in a German accent, claimed them as his private property, and positively refused to yield one.

The other man was his orderly, and words were useless - they kept their blankets.

After I returned to the large room, I took notice about clothing, and found that most of the men had on their - ordinary uniform; some had two blankets, more had one; but full one-third were without any. There was no shadow or pretense of a bed or pillow, not even a handful of straw or hay!

I spoke the first night to Dr. Porter about blankets and straw, or hay for beds, but was assured that none were to be had. Supplies could not reach them since being cut off from their base, and the Provost Marshal, Gen. Patrick, would not permit anything to be taken out of the houses, though many of them were unoccupied, and well supplied with bedding

and other necessaries. I thought we ought to get two blankets for those two naked men, if the Government should pay

their weight in gold for them; and suggested that the surgeons take what was necessary for the comfort of the men, and give vouchers to the owners. I knew such claims would be honored; would see that they should be; but he said the matter had been settled by the Provost, and nothing more could be done.

On Monday morning I sent for Dr. Porter, and stated the trouble about nurses shirking. He had them all summoned in the front end of the large room, and in presence of the patience, said to them:

"You see this lady? Well, you are, to report to her for duty; and if she has any fault to find with you she will report you to the Provost-Marshal!"

I have never seen a set of men look more thoroughly subdued. There were eleven of them, and they all gave me the

military salute. The doctor went off, and I set them to work.

When there was so much to be done, I would do the most needful thing first, and this was ridding the wounds of worms and gangrene, supporting the strength of the men by proper food, and keeping the air as pure as possible. I got our beef into the way of being boiled, and would have some good substantial broth made around it. I went on a foraging expedition - found a coal-scuttle which would do for a slop-pail, and confiscated it, got two bits of board, by which it could be converted into a stool, and so bring the great rest of a change of position to such men as could sit up; had a little drain made with a bit of board for a shovel, and so kept the mud from running in at the side door; melted the tops off

some tin cans, and made them into drinking cups; had two of my men confiscate a large tub from a brewery, set it in the

vestibule to wash rags for outside covers to wounds, to keep off chill, and had others bring bricks and rubbish mortar from a ruin across the street, to make substitutes for pillows.

I dressed wounds! dressed wounds, and made thorough work of it. In the church was a dispensary, where I could get

any washes or medicines I wished, and I do not think I left a worm. Some of them were over half an inch long, with black

heads and many feet, but most were maggots. They were often deeply seated, but my syringe would drive them out, and twice a day I followed them up. The black and green places grew smaller and better colored with every dressing. The men grew stronger with plenty of beef and broth and canned milk. I put citric acid and sugar in their apple sauce

as a substitute for lemons. I forget how many thigh stumps I had, but I think as many as twelve.