On this day in 1833 was the birth of Pauline Cushman, an actress and a Union spy during the Civil War. She was born Harriet Wood in New Orleans, Louisiana, and moved to Michigan as a young girl, where her parents set up a trading post with Native Americans. At a young age, most of Pauline’s friends were little girls from the Native American tribe, who called her “Laughing Breeze”. From a young age, Pauline was also very considerate and caring, and would invite members of the tribe into her home to give them food and shelter. However at the age of 18 she struck out on her own, heading back to New Orleans and then to New York City to start a career in acting. Luckily she had a quick start, thanks to her beauty and gracefulness, and as she began to earn roles in plays, she took the stage name Pauline Cushman in honor of her idol Charlotte Cushman (an actress).
In 1853, Pauline married Charles Dickinson (a musician) and moved with him to Cleveland, Ohio, where they had a son and a daughter. However Charles, who caught dysentery in the army and was sent home, eventually died of his illness. After his death, Pauline left her children to be cared for by their family, and returned to acting. She was on tour in Union-controlled Kentucky, performing a play at a theater, when two Confederate sympathizers tried to pay her money to give a toast to the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Pauline was a supporter of the Union, however, and she quickly reported the incident to Louisville’s Union provost marshal. Instead of putting a stop to it, the marshal saw the possibility for ingratiation, and told Pauline to accept the offer.
When she gave the toast to the Confederacy, the Union-supporting theater she was working in fired her– but she earned the trust of the Confederates and became one of their darlings. Under the instruction of Union Colonel William Truesdail (Chief of Army Police), she began to travel behind Confederate lines to learn whatever she could, gaining the confidence of high-level Confederate officers and spying on their conversations. Pauline had been warned of the risks should she be caught, but she persisted. Sometimes she would do her spy work dressed as a woman, but other times she would disguise herself as a young gentleman. In June of 1862, however, she was visiting the camp of General Braxton Bragg and discovered his battle plans and hid them within her shoe. But she aroused their suspicion and was arrested, and though she very nearly escaped using her feminine wiles (and acting skills), the battle plans were discovered and she was tried and convicted– despite the General’s hesitance to try a woman.
Pauline was convicted of hanging, but managed to delay her execution by faking sickness (or faking the intensity of her illness, as she may actually have been sick). She was saved three days before her hanging by Union troops who invaded the area. Following her rescue, she was awarded the rank of Brevet Major by General James A. Garfield, and commended for her service to the cause by President Abraham Lincoln.
For much of her life after that, she was known as “Miss Major Pauline Cushman”, and she toured the country telling stories of her spy days, before eventually marrying twice more (first to August Fichtner, and then after she was widowed to James Fryer). Eventually separating from her husband, she spent the last few years of her life in a boarding house in San Francisco, where she worked as a charwoman and a seamstress. Suffering from pain due to arthritis and rheumatism, she died of an overdose of morphine in December of 1893 and was buried in the Officer’s Circle at the Presidio’s National Cemetery in San Francisco. Her gravestone reads simply: “Pauline C. Fryer, Union Spy”.
(If you’re interested in a longer read, here is a story-like version: Abe Lincoln’s Loveliest Spy.)