BISMARCK DEPOT 1901
The train pulls into the Bismarck depot where the Sheriff escorts Melvina to an awaiting carriage. Melvina is ready for this next leg of the trip. No fear or trepidations she is arrogant, courageous, and Sheriff Twitchell is disinclined to acknowledge her demeanor.
“What makes you so content Melvina, considering your circumstances,” he says.
“And what might those circumstances be Sheriff? That after operating a brothel that sold alcohol for 12 years Cass County makes an arrest. Or I was arrested period?” she says mocking him.
“The latter,” he says, “given what I know of you and your business pursuits. But have you ever given any thought to why you have landed in prison dear?” he asks and holds her hand. A show of compassion or measuring her fear?
“I have given it much thought and will continue to do so, as long as promises are kept, I can manage my brief stay here,” she says now cupping his hand in hers and looking him deep in the eye. “But make no mistake; I will handle the treachery, my way.” She assures the Sheriff.
They arrive at the penitentiary at 2pm.
Sheriff Twitchell hands her over to the care of the deputy Warden since the Warden N.F. Boucher is busy preparing his annual report. The penitentiary’s matron escorts Melvina to a holding cage where she is booked.
Something is amiss in the proceedings. The sounds of chatter fill the room and smirks from the guards greet her. Melvina had assurances of a short stay and accommodations befitting of a woman of her station. However, the early indications are that something has changed.
She changes from her fine clothes into the more dank prison garb. Melvina is thankful that the wool smock and cotton undergarments appear clean from a recent washing. She puts on the proper prison attire, and the questions begin anew. The clerk annotates her responses and starts with a date of birth. “1839,” she answers and then says, “I am 49.” the admissions clerk judges her height and weight and then sputters out “Stand up tall against that wall. Hmmm, you are 5’9 more or less. Husband’s name and whereabouts?” he asks. Melvina takes a moment as if she was swallowing a bitter pill before answering. “Henry Rae is my husband, and his whereabouts are unknown, he could be in Chicago, don’t know, or care.” The clerk captures every word for posterity and then motions to another officer to his left.
A clerk takes a photo of her, which will become an item of great curiosity 110 years later when it vanishes and no other image of the ‘Mulatto Madame’ exists.
The questions continue as do the snide and condescending remarks from one guard. “They made a promise. Where is the Warden?” She thinks. Her eyes search the room looking. The clerk sees her and asks if she has misplaced an item. “My dignity and social status apparently, but to what purpose do questions serve now?” she ponders before responding. “Where is the Warden I wish to speak to him,” she says then remembers her new status and says “Please?”
Her question amuses the clerk who chuckles aloud.
“No Warden for you, a nigger whore. Be quiet and wait. Fetch the Warden my ass,” he says and on cue, the matron arrives.
“Is this badgering and demoralization of the inmates part of their incarceration mystique? These malcontents are not capable of the tasks assigned. Anyone can see this, and I been here five minutes. But, that word is used without inhibition, tread slow Melvina” she thinks and then follows the escorts to new accommodations.
The cells for women are next to the kitchen. Three narrow spaces needing ventilation and a cleaning. “Don’t turn your nose up to these accommodations’ missy. They’re more than adequate for any nigger,” says the matron. She knows that Melvina is neither a missy nor a nigger. But, in her mind one is correct.
“Pardon me, Miss, whatever your name is,” the matron turns with a menacing scowl but Melvina does not blink. “Do you think that word is magical? Does it conjure or evoke a mystical spell to make me less than who and what I am?” Melvina asks looking the woman square in the eye.
“In your cell nigger whore,” she says and Melvina moves but wants to say one last thing,
“Which word disgusts you more, since you use them both with equal affection? I think they are interchangeable in your mind,” she says and then obliges.
It is hard to say when the town of Fargo realizes that their most celebrated Madam is a mulatto and not a white woman of means from Virginia. At the turn of the century, news and rumors spread across Cass County and disgusts their polite society.
Others in Moorhead and St. Paul Minnesota knows of her ethnicity and assume everyone else does too. She marries Henry Rae (a mulatto man who was passing and everyone knew). To reinforce her position based on their biases Melvina never refuses courtesies and privileges afforded white women of the day.
She accepts the hand that their bias and racist views offer and plays it (and them) to perfection. Perceptions, or views of non-whites and Jews, are very harsh in the latter part of the 19th century. It infects every part of life and bureaucracy in the United States, a great example is those prudent and diligent civil servants the census investigators.
Contrary to popular belief, census investigators for over 150 years used the same method of determining a person’s race/ethnicity. They relied on the visual inspection and take into account how an individual is ‘perceived’ in their community. The last tools used are rules based on an individual’s share of ‘black blood’.
So, if a racially ambiguous person is well ‘received’ in the town where they live, the chances are the Census record will list them as white, as opposed to Italian, Greek, or black. This explains why many individuals identified as ‘white’ in one census can be found as mulatto or black in later ones. Race during the 1800s, absent of definitive physical attributes (skin color, hair texture), is perception and always a means to an end.
Madame Melvina is one who learns to parlay other people’s perceptions from a very early age. It is something that her father, Edward Massey, a free mulatto man, teaches her one Sunday afternoon.
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