Gluttony by Robert Kingsly, 2009
“Then he berated me and my children something terribly. But I was totally silent, and when he was done I said to him what my kids have done. It is not my fault, I have not set a bad example, and they are not whore-children like yours, and I have kept myself in control, unlike you. You committed adultery. You have eaten, boozed, and farted. I tell you in the name of God that if you do not repent in front of God, so you are lost, and also have given me poison.”
Justina Kriegher, Letter to her children, 1907, translated by Romy H. Hall, 2005
Did Romy Hall find the real voice of Justina Kriegher in the tortuous old Prussian German of her 1907 letter? If he did, what does it tell us?
In 1907, Justina Kitzman Lehn Kriegher Meyer Yonke was about 72 years old, in poor health, and, it seems, not surrounded by people who loved her. (“Mrs. Kraus came to me and gave me water. Said to me, You are so old it would be good if you are dead already.” Hall, p. 4) Justina was married to her fourth husband, August Yonke/Jannke, who she had married in 1896. By 1907, she believed he was trying to poison her to death, again.
Justina’s life had been hard. If the collected biographical notes in her file at the Brown County Historical Society are accurate, she married her first husband, Daniel Lehn, when she was sixteen and had three children by the time Lehn died when Justina was around age twenty one. Justina immigrated to America with her children and some of her siblings when she was twenty two.
She married her second husband, Frederick Kriegher in 1857, when she was twenty two or twenty three. They both brought children from previous marriages to the family, and had three more children together by 1862. Kriegher and two of their three children died in (or as a result of) the Dakota War.
Justina was wounded and wandered, lost, on the prairie for weeks before being discovered by two white soldiers. She was the only woman in the army camp at the protracted battle and seige of Birch Coulie.
John Meyer, one of the soldiers who found her, also survived Birch Coulie, having lost his wife at the opening of the war. Meyer became Justina’s third husband, making her the mother of children from at least five different mother-father combinations. All of her children were traumatized by watching a parent, siblings, and neighbors die at the hands of Dakota warriors.
Justina Kriegher experienced so much trauma in her lifetime, and for so many years was surrounded by people who had also experienced horrific trauma, that it is impossible to guess what the tenor of her 1907 letters suggests. Had Justina always been paranoid? Or after so many cumulative hardships, did she lose the ability to find good in people? On top of her many griefs, was Justina now being poisoned to death and reached out to her children, the only people she could trust? Or, perhaps more simply, were her children the only ones who understood her?
Two Plaster Saints
In any case, it seems like the real Justina Krieger was not the plaster saint either biographer made her out to be. Both Bryant and Huelster selectively retold her story to support an agenda. Compare their respective depictions of the “massacre” scene at the opening of the 1862 war.
W. H. D. Koerner, Madonna of the Prairie, 1921
“I stood yet in the wagon, refusing to get out and go with the murderers, my own husband, meanwhile, begging me to go, as he saw they were about to kill him. He stood by the wagon, watching an Indian at his right, ready to shoot….”
Charles S. Bryant, 1864, attributed to Justina Kriegher
Bryant painted a tableaux of pioneer martyrs nobly defending their wagon (that icon of westward colonial expansion) and the children inside it, against an onslaught of murderous “savages”–a trope going back to the earliest colonial Indian wars in the East. The words Bryant put in Justina’s mouth were calculated to justify the eradication of the (supposed) Native American menace in southern Minnesota to make the region safe for –to his way of thinking –his own superior, white, race.
Praying Madonna by Fillipo Lippi c. 1465
“….we were on our knees praying, when my husband sank to the ground, hit by a bullet. The horrible cries of the wild men, the pitiful weeping of the parents and their dying children was something that could never be imagined…..
Three nights and two days I was delirious, and I dreamed that I was on a narrow path, a large door was open before me and as I neared it I heard someone say: “You must suffer even more.””
August Huelster c.1908, attributed to Justina Kriegher
In contrast to Bryant’s secular slaughter, Huelster appropriated and reworked Justina Kriegher’s story for the edification of the faithful: Christian readers who, faced with imminent peril, might, like Kriegher’s family, stop and read a passage of scripture before fleeing for their lives, then fall into a prayer huddle at the feet of would-be executioners, fully prepared to meet their God at the hands of “wild men” who disregard the sanctity of the martyrs’ last rites.
Miraculously, in Huelster’s story Justina survives, marked by God as a noble woman chosen to bear much suffering. In his hands, Justina’s story becomes a sermon on superior Christian moral fortitude, closing:
“Since those days of dreadful experiences, God has led me through many storms and tests, but he has always remained faithfully at my side, and when I will eventually be taken from this life, then I shall see my loved ones who have gone before. This remains my joy and life.”
Justina Kriegher was not highly educated or highly literate. She was comfortable using explicit, earthy language, a woman who helped slaughter animals and who kneaded raw headcheese and liver sausage with her bare hands.
But in the hands of two different storytellers, the raw ingredients of Justina’s 1862 story were remolded. She emerged a refined, cultured, Christian gentlewoman, all the better contrast to the dark, heathen provocateurs who, these authors said, had bedeviled southern Minnesota in 1862, a pestilence upon the “fair [pale complected] state” the fictionalized Kriegher represented.
With this emerging knowledge of how the 1862 story was shaped by 19th century obsessions like race, how can we modern historians go along with whitewashing race out of the 1862 story? At the other extreme, how can we continue to take 19th century atrocity stories at face value?
As we approach the end of the 150 commemoration year, we have not arrived at a new, enlightened understanding of the 1862 war –except, perhaps, in beginning to understand how much we have yet to learn.