Swisshelm, Jane Grey
SWISSHELM, Jane Grey
Born 6 December 1815, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; died 22 July 1884, Sewickley, Pennsylvania
Also wrote under: Jennie Deans, J. G. S.
Daughter of Thomas and Mary Scott Cannon; married James Swisshelm, 1836 (separated); children: one daughter
When Jane Grey Swisshelm was seven, her father died of tuberculosis. Her mother, who had previously lost four children to the disease, disregarded the doctor's prescription when Swisshelm showed symptoms, treating her with fresh air, fresh food, and exercise. Swisshelm recovered, and at the age of fourteen was teaching in the public school in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. Swisshelm joined the church of her Scotch Covenanter parents at the age of fifteen, after a period of torment. The church provided her with a sense of purpose and a source of conflict throughout her life. In 1836 she married James Swisshelm, entering upon a marriage that was stormy and intermittent.
A short stay in Louisville, Kentucky, where her husband went into business, provided Swisshelm with material for her later writing against slavery. She started a school for blacks, but gave it up when threats were made to burn down her house. From 1840 on, Swisshelm's articles attacking capital punishment, advocating woman suffrage and the right of women to hold property, and urging the abolition of slavery appeared, at first anonymously, in newspapers in and around Pittsburgh. She contributed stories and poems as well. When Pittsburgh was left without an abolitionist paper in 1847, Swisshelm resolved to edit one herself. She delighted in the criticism she drew as a woman editor with pronounced political views. She continued to write for the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter after it merged with Robert Riddle's Journal in 1852. Her zeal for reform included advocacy of the "watercure treatment," advice on woman's health, dress, reading, and education.
An opponent of the Mexican War, Swisshelm went to Washington, D.C., in 1850 to observe the debate over disposition of Mexican territory acquired through the War. Horace Greeley engaged her as a Washington correspondent to the New York Tribune, and as the first woman to have such a regular assignment, she sought and secured a seat in the Congressional reporters' gallery.
In 1857 Swisshelm severed her connection with the Family Journal and Visiter, left her husband, and took her small daughter to northern Minnesota. There she agreed to revive and edit a defunct Democratic newspaper, which had as a major purpose attracting immigration to Minnesota. Her agreement with its proprietor included, however, the right to express her own views. The St. Cloud Visiter readily offended one of the leading political powers in the territory, and in March 1858, three men broke into her office and destroyed her press. Swisshelm first discovered she had an aptitude for public speaking at a meeting to raise funds to procure a new press, and for some years afterward made a lecture tour each year. As she traveled, she sent vivid letters to the St. Cloud Democrat, the weekly which had emerged under her editorship in July 1858 when, in order to avoid a libel suit, she had promised never again to use the Visiter as a political organ.
In 1863, following a revolt by the Sioux, Swisshelm went on a lecture tour through the East to arouse opinion in favor of sterner treatment of Native Americans. At this time, she characterized the Washington scene as "treason, treason, treason all around about—paid treason—official treason." She served as a nurse in military hospitals around Washington, while waiting to begin her duties as a clerk in the War Department. Her letters continued, castigating all whose conduct she disapproved: public officials, the Sanitary Commission, women who knit in the office.
Her last journalistic venture, the Reconstructionist (1865), was a radical newspaper, outspoken in its criticism of Andrew Johnson. Johnson responded by dismissing her from her post in the War Department, and without this source of income, she could not continue publication of the Reconstructionist.
Swisshelm's autobiography, Half a Century (1880), is unquestionably flawed by her biases. In addition, it was reconstructed from memory, as she had systematically destroyed letters and diaries during her unhappy marriage. It is, nevertheless, an important first-hand account of events of her time, as well as of her struggle as a woman. The last third of the book contains her picture of her experiences nursing the sick and wounded during the Civil War, putting to use her powers of keen observation, willingness to sacrifice herself, her sense of humor, her strong will, and her personal warmth.
A journalist who espoused many reform causes, Swisshelm was best known as an abolitionist. Her unrestrained style often provoked violent response, physical as well as verbal. Her writing is simple and direct, distinguished by dramatic narrative, graphic description, and vivid characterization. Although Swisshelm is noted and remembered for her ruthlessness, invective, and sarcasm, her brilliant style is equally effective in describing men and women she admired, and in conveying her warmth and her sense of pride in places and events which, to her, meant progress.
Letters to Country Girls (1853). True Stories About Pets (1879). Crusader and Feminist: The Letters of Jane Grey Swisshelm, 1858-1865 (edited by A. J. Larsen, 1934).
Files of the St. Cloud Visiter and the St. Cloud Democrat and a partial file of the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter are in the Minnesota Historical Society. A file of the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter and a few issues of the Reconstructionist are in the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.
Stuhler, B. and G. Kreuter, eds., Women of Minnesota (1977). Thorp, M. F. Female Persuasion (1949).
DAB. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Abraham Lincoln Quarterly (Dec. 1950). American Historical Review (July 1932). Minnesota History (March 1951). Mississippi Valley Historical Review (Dec. 1920). NYT (23 July 1884). Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (July 1921).
—VIVIAN H. SHORTREED