In 1859, the popular men’s magazine The National Police Gazette, known for its coverage of sport, saucy ladies, and other topics of general interest to the American heterosexual male, published a powerfully frank feminist rant written to the editors of the Philadelphia Daily News by one of the nation’s earliest female physicians.1 The author was Josephine Fagan, a recent graduate of the Female Medical College of Philadelphia, and in July of 1859, Miss Fagan was angry.
The immediate object of her anger was a Mr. Jackson, editor of the Saturday Transcript published by the Daily News. In the previous week, Jackson’s paper had made what Miss Fagan called “an unwarrantable use” of her name with regard to her involvement in a scandal at the Blockley Hospital, Philadelphia’s notable almshouse and charity hospital. Fagan, a night nurse at the hospital, had been fired in January after rumors suggested, and an investigation subsequently revealed, that she had stolen hospital goods. Around the same time, she was among several women presumed to be having an affair with Dr. R. K. Smith, the Chief Resident Physician of the almshouse. Though she refused to answer to these rumors, dodging a summons to a meeting of the board of directors in March, these allegations added a sexual tinge to the disgrace that surrounded her departure from the hospital.2
A woman like Fagan — unmarried, unconnected, dismissed in disgrace, not to mention sexually suspect — seemed perhaps the perfect example of the folly of the new experiment of training women to be doctors. In any case, she certainly represented an easy target for a misogynistic, scandal-hungry public press. Following the events of the spring, the Saturday Transcript published an editorial on Dr. R.K. Smith’s misconduct that aired Miss Fagan’s misfortunes once again before the people of Philadelphia. The editors evinced, if the subject’s words (and even louder actions) are to be trusted, little sympathy for the struggles of professional women, taking every ill word against Fagan at its salacious face value and publishing it for the entire city to read.
What was a woman in Fagan’s position to do — out of a job, alone in a city, and now slandered in the public press? Her father, Terrance Fagan, had died in an accident years before, and though she signed her name as “Mrs.” J.A. Fagan, there was, in reality, no Mr. Fagan to defend his wife’s honor.3 Though the paper’s attack had ostensibly been upon Dr. Smith, Fagan had, by association, fallen squarely in the way of public disgrace once again. “I could scarcely reconcile myself,” Fagan wrote to the News, “to be sacrificed, merely as an instrument to gratify the malice or punish the wrong-doings of others; that a woman, because defenceless, should not be torn in pieces in the mad play of men’s bitter animosities.” With no male relatives, or even friends, to secure justice for her in the face of this gross journalistic injustice, Josephine Fagan decided to take matters into her own hands.
On a Tuesday morning, Fagan called on the editor of the Transcript, hoping to find him in his office and confront him with his crime against her reputation. She had waited at the paper’s offices the previous day with no luck, but this time she waited only half an hour before Jackson made his appearance. “The first glance,” Fagan recalled, “sufficed to show me that I had not only a blackguard but a ruffian to encounter.” Her first impression was proven right: upon being shown the offending editorial and presented with Miss Fagan’s objections to her treatment, Jackson refused to apologize or offer reparations for his paper’s actions.
The avenue of mature discussion exhausted, Fagan turned to plan B: she pulled out a riding whip and attacked the editor. Three lashes in, he managed to wrestle the whip from her and throw her out, “using the most obscene language,” but Miss Fagan was not finished with him. Realizing that she had forgotten her umbrella in his office, she returned, retrieved it, and promptly broke it in two over Jackson’s head. “Had he have offered me personal injury,” she wrote later, “I should have called into requisition a more deadly weapon than a gutta-percha riding whip. As it was, I had inflicted the personal indignity he merited, and with a very insignificant weapon, and I told him he was quite welcome to the whip.”
Insignificant or not, a whip seems perhaps too aggressive a weapon to address the wrongs of the press — particularly for an educated lady like Miss Fagan. The ancient practice of dueling, still embraced in the mid-nineteenth century as an appropriate means of defending one’s honor, was honorable only for men; a woman who took up pistol or sword to redress wrongs to her reputation could no longer be considered a true lady. “It will no doubt be said,” Fagan acknowledged, “that my attack upon this Jackson was unfeminine and unladylike–the usual stereotyped cant of people who talk but never think.” Yet in her account of the incident to the News, Fagan suggested that more was at stake than her own name, and that her whip was aimed at more heads than Mr. Jackson’s. “I quietly submitted to his wanton attacks,” she wrote,
Fagan’s helpless rage at her usage in the paper of a powerful man “beneath the grasp of the laws” was the rage of a thousand voiceless women across the nation subjected to public and private outrages of equal injustice. Unheard by the stubborn Jackson, Fagan spoke with her whip and her umbrella; to make the message good, she wrote to the News defending her actions and demanding a revision of the system that left women without a defense against such attacks from public figures. Her message to the newspaper’s editors reads as the frustrated manifesto of a woman tired of inaction, a rare feminist voice in the public press of a nation not yet ready to hear the frank anger of its women.
Why would the Police Gazette, a magazine catering to an aggressively masculine audience, publish Fagan’s letter, with its account of the emasculating attack on Jackson and its unmistakable feminist rage?
Surely the injustices perpetrated against women by the public press, and the defense of physical force against such wrongs, were not the juicy content expected by men who bought the magazine. The letter, as an expression of female outrage at social injustices, could hardly be farther from the interest of the Gazette’s audience. As a document in the long and humorous history of women behaving badly, however, it made for excellent reading. The editors of the magazine framed Miss Fagan’s “card” to the Daily News carefully to support such a reading, introducing it with a recitation of the past indiscretions of Miss Fagan, “the friend and confidant of the chief resident physician, Dr. Smith,” undermining from the first any respectability Miss Fagan might have had.
A letter from a trained physician would have held little interest to the magazine’s readers; a letter from a disgraced thief and probable floozy promised certain thrills. The Gazette’s summing-up of the letter kept to this program of invalidation, adding to the insult by misspelling Fagan’s name: “From the card,” the editors wrote, “it is evident Mrs. Fagen is better with her pen than with a cow-skin …. The grossness of the article which led her to unsex herself, was no justification nor excuse for the use of a whip, which she only made an attempt, and a weak attempt, to use.”
In Fagan’s hands, the whip seemed a desperate but appropriately petty weapon against the petty and unjust cruelties of the male-dominated press; in the pages of the Gazette, it became a humorous instrument by which the disgraced lady doctor “unsexed herself,” forfeiting the respect demanded by the title of lady. Fagan’s feminism, transformed into a joke by pointed editorial framing, appeared to men across the nation not as a challenge to social inequality, but as yet another instance of women trying, and failing hilariously, to overstep the proper boundaries of their place in the modern world. It’s a tactic that survives today, as opponents of feminism boil down serious social critique to a punchline, and gloss over the long and arduous history of women’s anger with a condescending smile.
- Josephine Fagan, “Mrs. Fagan’s Card,” The National Police Gazette, July 16, 1859, 4. Return to text.
- “Meeting of the Guardians of the Poor — More Interesting Committees — Mrs. Fagan,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 1859, 1. Return to text.
- Josephine Fagan was, in fact, married, but to a Mr. Robert McCarty, an amateur inventor. The two had separated five years earlier, and McCarty was living in Europe when Josephine attended medical school as “Mrs. Fagan.” For more on the interesting life of Josephine Fagan (alias McCarty), see the author’s research blog at 62 Howard Street. Return to text.
Additional citations from: The National Police Gazette and The Philadelphia Inquirer.