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Published on Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Little Major: The Life of Pauline Cushman

By Gary Every


Pauline Cushman was born June 10, 1833 in New Orleans but was raised at her father's trading store on the Chippewa reservation. The Chippewas taught the young girl how to how to ride bareback, shoot, and paddle a canoe. At 18 she moved to New York City and joined a theatrical troupe called the New Orleans Varieties. With beautiful black eyes and raven ringlets of hair, Ms. Cushman soon landed a lead role in a play called The Seven Sisters.

In 1853 Pauline married Charles Dickinson who enlisted as a Union soldier until his death in 1862. When the Civil War broke out Pauline had divided loyalties. Her husband was a union soldier but many of her brothers fought for the confederacy. Pauline's theatrical success continued as The Seven Sisters toured the nation. When the drama played in Louisville, Kentucky, a city with sharply divided loyalties, the intrigue started.


At a dramatic point in the play, Pauline's character offered a toast to the Union. Confederate sympathizers approached Pauline and offered $300 dollar bribe to toast the South instead. Pauline went to the federal commandant with the news. He suggested she take the bribe and begin working as a secret agent. When the key moment arrived, Pauline raised up her glass, looked into the audience and declared, "Here's to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights." The audience erupted into catcalls, boos, cheers, rebel yells, and fist fights. The theater manager fired her on the spot.

The controversy allowed her to infiltrate the most active of Confederate sympathizers. Her most dangerous assignments came when chief of Army police; William Truesdail and General Rosencrans needed information on the size of the Southern army in Shelbyville. The Shelbyville Confederate forces were commanded by General Braxton Bragg and one of Pauline's brother's was a major on General Bragg's staff. Pauline Cushman, celebrated actress, southern champion, and Union spy, went behind rebel lines on the pretext of visiting her brother.

Contrary to Truesdail's orders; Pauline made sketches of Confederate positions. She also stole papers from the desk of a rebel officer. She tucked the contraband in her shoe and started towards the union line. She was discovered and captured. The plucky Pauline escaped, only to be captured again. She was brought before General Nathan Bedford Forrest who said, "Miss Cushman, I'm glad to see you. You're pretty sharp at turning a card, but I think we have you on this last shuffle." She was sentenced to die on the gallows but General Rosencrans attacked before the sentence could be carried out.

Pauline was overwhelmed by her experiences and needed a long convalescence. During this recovery she was attended by future president James Garfield who wrote to Abraham Lincoln of the brave young woman the soldiers had nicknamed "The Major." President Lincoln wrote back; "Let her keep the title. She has done more to earn the title than many a man who wore the shoulder stripes of a major during the war."

When she recovered, Pauline toured the nation; appearing on stage in uniform and recounting her wartime adventures. Despite her success, Pauline was lonely. Her first husband had died and their two children both died early. In 1872 she married August Fitchner who died shortly thereafter. Next, she married an Army surgeon named Dr. Samuel Orr. Orr was assigned to Fort Bowie and this brought the famous actress to Arizona. Orr died shortly after his arrival in 1875. Pauline was widowed again.

Pauline married for a fourth and final time; pledging her devoted love to a tall, dark handsome man named Jeremiah Fryer who was many years her junior. The newlyweds purchased a hotel in the Arizona Territory at Casa Grande. When the railroad arrived the business and the town boomed. Known locally as Major Fryer, Pauline would referee gun fights and nurse the wounded. The couple moved to Florence when Jeremiah became the Pinal County sheriff in 1889. Once, while the sheriff was out of town, a group of vigilantes stormed the jail, threatening to drag prisoners from their cells and lynch them. Pauline plopped herself down in her husband's chair and greeted the advancing mob. With a Winchester rifle in her lap she single handedly turned back the crowd.

Jeremiah Fryer, the tall, lean, half Cherokee sheriff soon earned a reputation as the local Romeo. Pauline's infamous temper grew worse as her husband's infidelities grew more open. Local newspapers carried items such as this; "Major Fryer doused Mrs. Cunningham in the water trough for slander." The Arizona Republican carried an account with Charles Eastman where he wobbled drunkenly from a saloon late one night and was greeted by Pauline who inquired on the whereabouts of her "long legged husband." Eastman replied that it was not his job to keep track of husbands. Eastman related, "No sooner had I spoken than she pulled her forty five, cocked it, stuck it against my belly, and said I asked you a civil question and I want an answer due a lady."

Pauline confronted one of her husband's favorite paramours. The two women grappled and the much younger women thrashed the aging actress, handing out a public humiliation to Pauline. Desperate to be sole object of her husband's affection, Pauline hit upon a desperate plan. She approached a woman with an unwanted pregnancy and offered to purchase her unborn child. Pauline told her husband she was pregnant and left for San Francisco to receive the best medical care available. The single mother joined her there. Pauline returned to Florence with a baby girl named Emma Pauline Fryer. Jeremiah never suspected the ruse and the couple lived in domestic harmony. Little Emma was afflicted with an incurable nervous disorder that caused violent seizures and she died at age six. A grief stricken Pauline confessed the deception and Jeremiah left her.

Pauline tried to revive her theatrical career in San Francisco but to no avail. She lived the last of her days as a scrub woman in abject poverty. She died in 1893 and when the newspapers announced that she would be buried in a pauper's field, a veteran's organization laid her to rest with a military guard, American flag and rifle salute. Her San Francisco tombstone reads, "Pauline Cushman, Federal Spy and Scout of the Cumberland."

Gary Every is an award winning journalist, including for stories such as The Apache Naichee and Losing Geronimo's Language. He is the author of Shadow of the OhshaD (OhshaD is a Native american word for jaguar) and Battling the Hydra, a collection of encounters with mostly wild animals. His poetry has been nominated for both Pushcart prizes as well as the Rhysling Award for the years best science fiction poem. His work appears in a variety of magazines such as Arizona Highways, Desert Leaf, Weber Studies, Tales of the Talisman, and many more.

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