This engraving, titled “The Minnesota Massacre,” faces the title page for Josephine Huggins’s story in Beadle’s Boys’ Book of Romance and Adventure No. 10. Dime publishers had extensive collections of stock artwork they recycled in multiple titles. While the expressions on the faces of the women and children are clearly defined, the muscular Native American man’s features are inscrutable beneath a mask of blind fury.
Nancy L. Chu writes, “Viewed as reflections of the times in which they were written, dime novels provide insight into a code of behavior and set of attitudes significant to the lives of people long gone. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this reading experience is the identification of the attitudes which bridged fiction and reality in the nineteenth century and whose remnants, fortunately or unfortunately, remain with us today. Female dime-novel characters and their living counterparts were both subject to these attitudes, and successful authors made their heroines and anti-heroines conform to the expected social and spiritual requirements or pay a heavy price for failure.”
Chu was commenting on the role assigned to women in dime fiction. The same thing could be said for the stereotyped characterizations of Native Americans. While the dime genre has long been dismissed as simple entertainment, these old books embody some of the dominant cultural values of their day.
In this post, I will explore what Ellis’s treatment of Josephine Huggins’s story reveals about how virtuous women were viewed in the 19th century. That is directly tied to the next post, where we’ll see the real-life consequences of similarly stereotyping Native Americans.
Isaac Heard was the first to subtly dial-up the moral value of Josephine’s story by making Josephine the wife of a missionary. Ellis not only repeated that idea, he took other subtle liberties to polish the real-life Josephine into a stereotypical dime-novel heroine.
These are some characteristics Ellis found worthy of comment:
- Josephine was unprepared for violence and captivity: “The massacre… did not reach the station until the next day, and then it came with the most startling suddenness.”
- In her trust and innocent goodwill, Josephine was deceived by Native men, who entered her home under pretext: “They evinced much friendship…”
- Native people recognized Josephine’s cultural superiority and were properly awed: “They appeared particularly pleased with the sewing-machine that was used. They minutely examined it, and seemed anxious to understand how it was that it wrought with such astonishing rapidity.”
- She witnessed the death of her husband: “She heard the rapid report of two guns in succession.” A few moments later, Josephine saw his body outside the house. (p. 6)
- Josephine behaved nobly, rising above her trauma: “Although her heart was ready to burst with grief, she was compelled to force it down, and attended to the safety of her loved ones and herself.” Before fleeing, “the faithful wife, at imminent risk of her own life, ran into the house and procured a lounge cover, which she spread over the corpse of her beloved husband.”
Next, Ellis spends pages developing Josephine as a beacon of civility in the Dakota homes in which she sought refuge, where she was honored and shielded by “good Indians” who treated her as, “the royal guest of the lodge.”
Exerting her birthright to the Protestant work ethic, Josephine was an exemplary captive: “With tact and judgment, Mrs. Huggins endeavored to conform to the tastes and opinions of those around her. By this means she endeared herself to them…. She assisted the chief’s wife in sewing,cooking, bringing water, or any other chore to which she could turn her hand.”
Throughout, Josephine remained an idealized Christian. “Six long, weary weeks passed slowly away. How sad, and lonely,indeed, none but that stricken young widow can tell. But the same consolation that had been the comfort and delight of her husband was hers. The blessed Bible that had once been his, was her constant companion, and from its pages she drew those great truths so sustaining to the human heart inits hour of affliction.”
So Ellis took mild fictional liberties with Josephine’s story. At the same time, her real-life narrative would have appealed to him as an author because the main job of a dime novel heroine was to stand in stark relief to the dark “heathenism” of the Native world into which she was thrust.
But Ellis corrupted the spirit of Josephine’s narrative by transforming it into anti-Indian propaganda. As Lois Glewwe remarked in the post which started this series, “Josephine’s story is remarkable in many ways. Unlike so many captivity narratives of the 1862 war, this document does not demonize the Dakota, nor are the events or dangers exaggerated or enhanced with violent and dramatic details.”
Authors like Ellis could not resist making the Indian captivity scenario a fictional proving ground for True White Womanhood. Too conveniently, the formula required demonizing Native Americans to justify the eradication of their “threat” to moral paragons like Josephine Huggins. Tragically, not just at the end of the story, but as we will see, in real life.
I think it’s especially interesting that Ellis has Josephine going back into the house before fleeing to find something to cover Amos’ body with. In her story she makes it clear that he had been sewing on a coverlet when she heard the shots and ran outside to find his body. She specifically says that she took that coverlet and put it over Amos’ body. There was no intentional going back in to the house to find something to cover him with. She reacted in the moment and tossed her sewing project over his body before fleeing the scene. In these details, Ellis and authors like him take the very mundane details of an event and change them into something they never were, attributing the actor with motives they never had.