First chapter: "Frontier Justice"

 
“In 1860 I was arrested with several of my neighbors, among them a Congregational clergyman and his wife, his deacon and wife, a Notary Public, and an ex-Probate judge, for kidnapping neighbor D’s children. As a matter of fact, we had aided the mother in recovering her little ones from the clutch of a husband who had lived for years on the earnings of her needle, beaten her once to death’s door, finally choked her to insensibility, and thrust her out of doors, throwing her clothes after her.”—Clarina Nichols

The whole tale was absurd, outrageous, and tragic, which is probably why she loved to tell it. On the eve of the Civil War, one of the most respected women in Kansas Territory, a New England expatriate of excellent pedigree, a newspaper editor, and one of the country’s best-known lecturers — Clarina I. H. Nichols — had been hauled into court to answer charges filed by a known wife beater and one of the town’s leading scoundrels.

Her crime, it seemed, was befriending a young woman whom she had met on her daily stroll through Quindaro, a frontier outpost on the west bank of the Missouri River. Three years earlier, Quindaro had been one of the most desirable destinations in Kansas Territory. By 1860, however, it had gone bust, a victim of the vagaries of speculation, economic reversals, and politics that ruined many a Western town. Scattered among Quindaro’s dwellings were half-finished or abandoned shops, mercantile stores, and homes, their vacant windows staring out onto dirt streets and a landscape littered with tree stumps, rock piles, and debris. Only the town’s hardiest residents remained, many of them holding on in the hope that they could recoup their investments.

Lydia Peck had been through too much to be discouraged by the dismal sight that greeted her as she stepped off the steamboat and started up the road to the town hotel. Since her marriage to James Peck, she had known little but hardship. For years she had supported her family, earning a modest living through diligent sewing and clever handiwork. But James was an abusive and a vengeful husband. When she asked him for a divorce, he threw her out of the house, converted their assets into cash, and fled with the children, Alma and Liberty, to parts unknown. Not knowing where they had gone, lacking the means to find them, Lydia Peck sought work in a New England cotton mill where she skimped and saved until she had $400 in gold. Then she set out, determined to find her children and take them back home with her.

The trail had led to Quindaro, where James Peck was said to be living under an assumed name. Within hours, Lydia Peck had chanced upon the one person in town best prepared to help her. Clarina Nichols recognized the man Lydia was describing to her. He was none other than James Dimond — “neighbor D,” as she would describe him in newspaper accounts — a ne’er-do-well who lived with two small children in a rundown shack just down the road.

Nichols quickly assembled a circle of allies from among the leading citizens of Quindaro. On hearing of Lydia’s plight, they were ready to dispense with the law and take immediate action. “The gentlemen advised that I with several other women should go with the mother and take the children by force, and they would go with and protect us from violence,” she would later write.

Her instincts, however, told her to avoid a confrontation with James Peck, a man known for his vile temper. Moreover, Nichols realized that Lydia’s plight could serve a larger purpose. For her husband’s actions, while extreme, were not illegal. Domestic abuse was not a crime in 1860, and his absconding with Liberty and Alma was tolerated as well, since the ordinary legal assumption of the day was that they were his children, not hers.

Laws making spousal abuse a crime were still years away from passage, but in progressive states across the Union, legislatures had started to level the field in custody cases. Nichols herself had recently lobbied the territorial legislature in Kansas, and at her urging it had passed a bill that, in theory at least, ended the automatic right of fathers to their children in a divorce. “Neighbor D,” Nichols realized, could serve as an ideal test of the new law. After all, James Peck’s idea of custodianship was well known throughout Quindaro. Nichols and others had seen Liberty and Alma begging scraps of food from neighbors, and the home he provided for them was, in Nichols’s words, “a hovel.” Challenging James Peck in court had something else in its favor: It would be the easiest way to wrest these two children from their father, who did not strike anyone as being the negotiating kind.

After some discussion, the group agreed that Nichols should travel to the territorial capital and seek a divorce, with full custody rights, for Lydia Peck. Packing her “knitting work and reputation,” Nichols headed for the legislature.

For a month she stayed on, finding work as a legislative clerk to support her efforts as she helped the divorce bill wend its way through subcommittees and both houses. While this was going on, several of the lawmakers asked her to educate them as to why a woman might need protection from her own husband, and Nichols helped enlarge their understanding. Though James Peck’s attorneys challenged the bill, they could not prevail on the lawmakers. The divorce was signed by the territorial governor on February 27, 1860, winning freedom for Lydia and stripping James of custody over the children.

That should have been the end of the matter, but Clarina Nichols knew that things were not always as they seemed in Kansas Territory. At that time in its history, the territory was, in her words, “intensely political in every fibre.” In that uncharted wilderness, the personal, the political, and the criminal intersected as they rarely have in U.S. history. Large numbers of fugitive slaves were crossing from Missouri, where slavery was legal, into Kansas Territory, where it was not. Some living in the border towns were ready to aid escaping slaves, but others were just as ready to hunt them down and sell them back to their Missouri masters for $100 a head.

Nichols felt contempt for “conspiring Kansas officials” who actively aided the bounty hunters. She also knew that if they felt no pangs of conscience about profiting from the fugitive slave trade, they would scoff at a Kansas law granting Lydia Peck custody of her children. They would surely aid her ex-husband instead.

But with the law firmly on her side, Nichols was ready to take the direct action she had been reluctant to try earlier. She recruited a friend with a fast horse to race back to Quindaro and tell the local sheriff to be on the lookout for James Peck making a run for the border. Sure enough, he was spotted with a rifle on his shoulder and his children in tow, trying to sneak out of town after being served the divorce papers. The sheriff arrested and detained him, and Liberty and Alma were put in the care of a neighbor. This gave Nichols the opportunity she needed to recover the children without having to deal with their ill-tempered father.

He had frightened the youngsters by telling them that the reason he had taken them from their mother and fled in the middle of the night was that she was trying to poison them. They had to be dragged from the neighbor’s house “screaming, biting, and scratching their captors,” Nichols wrote. At midnight, mother and children were spirited out of Quindaro using the escape routes of the local Underground Railroad.

The next day, Nichols began staging an elaborate charade to convince James Peck that his children were hidden somewhere in the village. For three days she and her co-conspirators darted about Quindaro, meeting in the shadows, exchanging notes, looking for all the world like they were up to something. By the time Peck realized he had been tricked, his former family was halfway across the country. Not willing to let go of the matter, he convinced (or paid) local officials to have Nichols and several others arrested. They were charged with “wilfully, maliciously, forcibly and fraudulently enticing, leading, carrying away and detaining” Peck’s children.

Throughout the weeks of legal proceedings that followed, Nichols kept the newspaper readers of northeastern Kansas entertained by her account of the courtroom shenanigans. Writing under the pen name “Quindaro” for the Lawrence Republican, she described the case as though writing a drama review, with each update serving as a new scene. “The curtain is about to rise on scene fifth,” she wrote as the case was nearing conclusion. She recalled how, earlier, Peck’s lawyers had entered the courtroom with a “flourish of trumpets,” parading their “wonderful legal acumen” before the grand jury. But the prosecution’s case had quickly unraveled, and now there was nothing to sustain it but the claims of James Peck. The judge threw the case out, and afterward, Nichols joked, Peck’s lawyers beat such a hasty retreat that “it is not known certainly whether they are alive.”

By then she had received a thank-you note from Lydia Peck, who was back in New England, beginning a new chapter in her life. Nichols reported that each night Lydia went to bed with “a little sunny head on each arm, because neither [child] was willing to be separated from her.”

***

Two decades later, Clarina Nichols was still telling that story. A lengthy account of the case appeared in a San Francisco newspaper in 1880, and another account was sent to her longtime friend and comrade, Susan B. Anthony. It is likely that Lydia Peck’s story became a staple in the speeches that Nichols gave over the years, for it served as a graphic reminder of the need for laws that gave the so-called “second sex” the same basic rights and protections that men had.

During her long and productive career as a lecturer, activist, and journalist, Nichols collected stories of wives, widows, divorce├ęs, and children who were put in harm’s way because of a legal system that failed to protect them. Whenever she spoke before a group or wrote an article for a newspaper, Nichols included stories that illustrated injustice. The widow sent to the poorhouse because the laws of her state did not permit her to collect her husband’s estate. The wife helpless to stop her spouse from spending all she earned on drink. The little boy left orphaned and penniless because his dying mother could not leave him an inheritance.

Stories, she discovered, touched hearts, and she used them to animate the cases of injustice she brought to light. Like a mother encouraging her children to include an ignored or picked-upon playmate, Nichols, in her calm and genteel way, helped both men and women respond to the plight of women in untenable situations.

There was one story, however, that Clarina Nichols never told — her own. Few of the women who poured out their souls to her would ever know it, but she had once suffered the same fate as they had. She knew how it felt to be betrayed by the person she had promised to love beyond all others, and she knew what it was like to come home to find her children missing. She rarely spoke of these formative years, however, and she kept a full decade of her life cloaked in secrecy. Unlike many who served in the early women’s rights movement, she did not write a memoir. Perhaps Nichols wished to avoid reliving those painful memories, or she may simply have wanted to deny her opponents any chance to dredge up details of her past. Whatever the reason, she rarely discussed those early experiences that had shaped and strengthened her for the struggle ahead.

And strengthen they did. Though she did not attend the historic Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, Clarina Nichols was one of the early leaders of the first organized movement in the United States for women’s civil rights. Other sisters in the struggle eventually would grow weary or get married and leave the movement behind. But Nichols devoted herself wholeheartedly to the cause of women’s rights until the end of her life.

***

Since her death in 1885, her name has faded almost entirely from the annals of history. Her two-page entry in the landmark encyclopedia Notable American Women in 1971 brought her accomplishments to light, and the following year the first partial collection of her papers was published. Anyone reading those letters and articles can see that this was an unjustly overlooked pioneer of the women’s movement. Little was known, however, about her motivations. Why, for instance, did she close down her newspaper in Vermont and set out — at the age of 44 — to make her dream of equality come true on the tough, unforgiving soil of the American frontier?

In the past six years, new documents by and about Nichols have been discovered. They shed light on both her public career and the forces that impelled her to follow the westward expansion of the United States, from Vermont to Kansas to California. They reveal a sociable but solitary woman who remained optimistic and productive in the face of constant adversity. And they provide greater insight into why Nichols identified so closely with women trapped in poverty and abusive relationships, and why they occupied a tender place in her heart.
 




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