Pauline Cushman

From Actress to Spy

Harriet Wood was born on June 10, 1833, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her father was a successful businessman at first, however, his business soon failed and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Looking for a new start, both professionally and personally, he moved their family north to Michigan when Harriet was ten. Surrounded by trappers and huntsmen Harriet knew little of city life except what she heard from traveler’s reports. These little snippets were enough to spark her imagination and she became enamored with the idea of New York City.

At the age of 18, Harriet left home and moved to New York to become an actress. Her first order of business was changing her name to Pauline Cushman, in recognition of her idol, Charlotte Cushman who was a leading actress of the time. The now Pauline, had a preternatural poise on the stage, which coupled with her beauty quickly earned her roles. Before she knew it, she had been hired on with a touring company and found herself back in Louisiana. It was here that Pauline met a musician named Charles Dickenson. They had a short courtship, and in February of 1853 were married. Pauline left the stage when she became pregnant, and the small family settled in Cleveland, Ohio. They had two children, Charles Jr. and Ida.
Pauline was poised to lead a typical 19th century life as mother and housewife, when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Both Pauline and her husband were staunchly for the Union, so when the 41st Ohio Infantry began mustering troops, Charles enlisted as a drummer. However, his military career was cut short when he, like so many other soldiers, contracted dysentery. He became so ill, that he was discharged from the Army and sent home, where he died in December of 1862.

Not one to mourn for long, Pauline left her children in the care of relatives and returned to the stage. She quickly found work in a touring company performing the play Seven Sisters by Laura Keene. This play is very similar to what we would call sketch comedy, and Keene rewrote it numerous times over the years to keep up with the changing politics and scandals of the day. As such, it was an ideal play to broadcast a Pro-Union message along the Border States. It worked double duty as propaganda for the locals who might be harboring Southern sympathies, and as entertainment for the Union troops. Pauline was a prominent figure in this production, holding parts in several of the sketches. One such sketch involved her making a toast. It was this scene that began Pauline’s foray into espionage.

In March 1863, Pauline found herself in Union-controlled Louisville, Kentucky. Knowing the part she would be playing, two Confederate sympathizers approached Pauline and offered her a substantial amount of money if she would toast President Davis and the Confederacy in her next performance. Pauline did not accept the offer right away, and instead reported the incident to the local Provost Marshall. He saw this an opportunity, and much to Pauline’s surprise, he told her to take the money, make the toast, and then report back to him.

Pauline did just that, and instead of her usual toast, she raised her glass in the next performance and declared, “Here’s to Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights.” Mayhem ensued that nearly broke out into a riot and the police were called. The manager of the theater troop convinced the police not to arrest her, but then immediately fired her for being a Southern sympathizer. In one fell blow, Pauline Cushman had established herself as a northern pariah and a southern darling. 

The morning after this fateful performance, Pauline reported to the Chief of Army Police for the Union. He warned her of the dangers should she be caught as spy, impressing upon her that if she were tried and found guilty as a spy, not even being a woman would save her. Pauline accepted the risk and asked for her orders. She was to use her feminine charms, or her skills as an actress, to infiltrate enemy camps and spread dis-information. Should she happen upon information about the enemy she was instructed to memorize whatever she could and report back, however, under no circumstances was she to write anything down.

Pauline travelled with the camp followers of the Confederate Army as they made their way through Kentucky and Tennessee. Depending upon which dress was more advantageous, she would dress as a young gentleman, or as herself the young charismatic actress. By playing both roles she was able to move freely about the camps and even managed to ingratiate herself with several high-level Confederate officers. 

In June of 1863, Pauline found herself in the camp of General Braxton Bragg, where she was able to procure his battle plans. Eschewing the warning from her superiors about having any written documentation, Pauline tucked the papers into her boot and made to leave camp. However, before she was able to make her escape, suspicion was aroused and she was detained. Upon the discovery of General Bragg’s papers, she was arrested as a spy. General Bragg disliked the idea of trying a woman in a military court, but with such blatant evidence he had no choice. Pauline’s trial was short and she was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

While in prison awaiting execution Pauline fell gravely ill. Whether she was actually gravely ill, or merely exaggerating a minor illness is unknown, but it bought her a reprieve. While the Confederate Army waited for her to become well enough to hang, the Union Army was advancing on their location. Eventually the Union troops drew too close and the Confederate troops were forced to retreat. Pauline was left in her sick bed at the local doctor’s house, and thus saved by the Union Army. She would later recount that she was rescued just three days before she was scheduled to hang.

After her rescue, there was no chance of continuing her spy work as she was too well known. However, the Northern Army and the government realized that they could benefit from the fact that her story was well known. Every war needs its heroes, and the more peculiar the story, the better. Pauline received commendations for her service to the Union from President Lincoln, General Garfield and was awarded the rank of Brevet-Major. Newspapers covered her story across the North and she received the nickname, “The Spy of Cumberland.”

Not one to pass up an opportunity, Pauline began touring the country performing a one-woman show about her exploits as a spy. As her popularity grew, so did her tales of daring-do. She even attracted the attention of PT Barnum who featured her in his American Museum in New York before it burned down. Her performances ranged from Boston to San Francisco, and in 1865 Ferdinand Sarmiento adapted her show into a biography entitled, Life of Pauline Cushman: The Celebrated Union Spy and Scout. As she had a hand in the biography, it is said to be heavy on the entertainment and light on the facts. A few of the facts that were left out included the existence of her late husband and her children. It is speculated that her son died in 1864 and her daughter shortly thereafter, but the facts are murky.

1865 also brought about the end of the Civil War and a steady decline in the interest of Pauline’s story. She continued telling her tale in the West with Irish comedian James M. Ward, but by 1867 it became obvious that there was no longer an audience for her show and she would have to find other work. Pauline found herself working odd jobs in the San Francisco area, when in 1872 she married August Fichtner. Unfortunately this marriage was even shorter than the first as August died within the year. Newly widowed, Pauline once more worked odd jobs that eventually led her to Arizona where in 1879, she married Jere Fryer. He operated a hotel in Casa Grande, Arizona, where the two of them lived and even adopted a little girl. However, when the little girl died in 1890, grief tore the Fryer’s marriage apart, and Pauline eventually moved back to San Francisco.

Pauline took in sewing work and cleaned houses when she could for money, but that work was spotty as she had developed arthritis and rheumatism. The more she worked, the more pain she was in, which meant she took ever more laudanum and became addicted. Desperate, she turned to the government and tried applying for the pension that her first husband should have received for his service in the army. She was awarded his pension retroactively in the amount of $8 per month. However, she was only eligible from the day he died until the day she remarried ten years later, which amounted to less than $1000. Today, the same amount would be just under $25,000.

This money didn’t last long, and as her arthritis and addiction became worse she became unable to work. On December 2, 1893, at the age of 60, Pauline died of an opium overdose. Whether this overdose was deliberate or accidental is impossible to know. As she had no known family, she would have had a pauper’s burial, if it weren’t for the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veteran’s society to which Pauline belonged. The society stepped in to arrange her funeral and buried her with full military honors in the officer’s circle of the San Francisco National Cemetery.
*Originally appeared on Patreon