Sunday, October 10, 2021

Miss McEnders

Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

Employees heading home at the end of the day from Brown’s Shoe Factory, Washington & 18th Streets, St. Louis, Missouri, 1910. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine. Library of Congress. “Georgie had just discovered that she had yet an hour to spare before starting out with the committee of four to further investigate the moral condition of the factory-girl.” —from “Miss McEnders”
In the annals of St. Louis during the period after the Civil War, few men played a larger role in sketchy political shenanigans than did William McKee, one of three joint owners of the Missouri Democrat newspaper. Founded in 1852, the Democrat was fully aligned with the Republican Party by the end of the decade, while in a bizarre historical quirk the Missouri Republican supported the Democrats. From the beginning, McKee’s paper positioned itself with an antislavery stance—or, at least, it professed as much support for an eventual, “peaceable emancipation” as the reading public in a slave state would tolerate—and it became an early ally in Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign.

Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election, followed by the Union’s victory in the Civil War, ensured McKee’s prominence in the party. One measure of his influence was his ability to handpick the census takers in St. Louis. As cities began to report their counts in 1870, McKee convinced his officials to wait until Chicago announced its figures. After Chicago logged a population just shy of 300,000, St. Louis boasted a total of 310,864—almost twice the count ten years earlier—which made St. Louis the nation’s fourth largest city, behind New York, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. Although the numbers were greeted with incredulity by Chicago officials and even by the Fourth City’s own residents, the fraud wasn’t exposed until ten years later, when Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the rival St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reported that census officials had included names of people who didn’t live in St. Louis.

McKee’s census hoax was relatively benign compared to his involvement in the Whisky Ring, the scandal that nearly brought down the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant. In the early 1870s, to avoid the hefty tax on whisky sales, distillers paid government officials half the amount for the duty stamps affixed to bottles. The money was then siphoned off the books, initially to advance Republican Party interests. The conspiracy, which reached all the way to the Cabinet, quickly outgrew “its humble slush fund origins to become by 1873 a purely criminal enterprise, defrauding the federal treasury of an estimated million and a half dollars a year,” writes Timothy Rives of the National Archives. The scheme originated in St. Louis and one of the ringleaders was McKee, who skimmed as much as $300,000 for himself—money pumped directly into his newspaper business to create the St. Louis Globe. McKee eventually merged both papers as the Globe-Democrat, which boasted one of the largest circulations west of the Mississippi. When the conspiracy was uncovered by a new Secretary of the Treasury, more than 300 people were arrested and 110 were convicted. McKee received a two-year sentence and a $10,000 fine, but he was pardoned by Grant after staying in the city jail for only six months—during which he spent nights at home with his family.

When McKee died in 1879, his estate and the controlling interest in the Globe-Democrat passed first to his wife, Eliza, and then in 1892 to his daughter, Ellen, both of whom quietly used their fortune to fund women’s societies, educational organizations, morality campaigns, and Christian missions abroad. Kate Chopin, who had returned to St. Louis from New Orleans in 1884, two years after the death of her husband, got to know Ellen McKee—and she apparently was not entirely fond of the conservative, high-minded heiress.

McKee and Chopin probably became well acquainted in the months after December 1890, when Chopin became a charter member of the Wednesday Club, an organization whose stated purpose was “to create and maintain an organized center of thought and action among the women of St. Louis, and to aid in the promotion of their mutual interests, in the advancement of science, education, philanthropy, literature and art.” Founded by Charlotte Eliot (whose youngest child, the future poet T. S. Eliot, was still an infant), the club at first seemed appealing to Chopin—she even delivered to its members a lecture on German composers—but within eighteen months she resigned, apparently dissatisfied with the requirement that members belong to one of the “study clubs” (Current Topics, Social Economics, etc.) and with the artsy pretensions and sanctimonious righteousness of some of the women. She described one particularly irritating member in her diary: “The spirit of the reformer burns within her, and gives to her eyes the smouldering, steady glow of a Savonarolas [sic]. The condition of the working classes wrings her heart. ‘Work’ is her watch word.”

In March 1892, the month before she left the organization, Chopin wrote the story “Miss McEnders,” about a social reformer concerned about the “moral condition” of St. Louis’s many female workers, and there is no doubt that the eponymous character was modeled after Ellen McKee and that the organization to which she belongs was a caricature of the Wednesday Club. Although Chopin was approaching the peak of her career, when most of her writings found publishers, no editor would touch the story. (Eliza McKee's death that April, which was widely reported, may well have reinforced the hesitation of editors who recognized the target of the satire.) The tale finally appeared five years later in the March 6, 1897, issue of The Criterion, a new St. Louis literary magazine that had risen from the ashes of St. Louis Life after its purchase by Grace L. Davidson, a former schoolteacher. Davidson did not have the kind of wealth necessary to maintain such an enterprise, and so the publication was entirely dependent on the $1,000 a week donated by none other than Ellen McKee.

In case local readers missed the connection, Post-Dispatch journalist William Marion Reedy was more than happy to point it out. “Miss McKee is devoted to charities of all kinds, including the maintenance of fashionable weeklies,” he wrote. “The publication of the tale is a splendid example of biting the hand that feeds.” Reedy, who knew full well (but did not reveal) who wrote the story, also related that McKee herself didn’t “believe the ‘explanation’ that the story was not intended to mock her philanthropic tastes and revile her father’s memory.” The authorship of the piece was something of an open secret among the St. Louis upper crust, so the odds are that McKee found out soon enough who had written it.

Six months later, McKee paid to have The Criterion’s offices moved to New York and in January 1898, after yet another infraction against decency, its editor, Henry Dumay, was fired. The following year McKee’s paper, the Globe-Democrat, which had never been kind to Chopin or her books, led the charge against her second novel The Awakening: “It is not a healthy book; if it points to any particular moral or teaches any lesson, the fact is not apparent.” It is unknown whether McKee and Chopin encountered ever each other again.

Note: American economist Henry George crisscrossed the country during the 1890s, delivering speeches maintaining that a single tax on land would cover the costs of government. The French expression c’est un propre, celui la! translates as “That’s a proper one, that one there!”

Many of the above details and quotes concerning both the Wednesday Club and William Marion Reedy are culled from Emily Toth’s biographies Kate Chopin and Unveiling Kate Chopin.

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When Miss Georgie McEnders had finished an elaborately simple toilet of gray and black, she divested herself completely of rings, bangles, brooches—everything to suggest that she stood in friendly relations with fortun. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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