It was a small gallery – pictures of women from long ago. Some were clothed, most were not. But it was a portrait that caught the eye most – a portrait in close-up that was the first I clicked on to enlarge. Above the set of images was the name Robert Wilson Shufeldt. I bookmarked it, as I do anything I discover in the ether that may have the potential of a bit of a yarn to it. In theory the plan is always to return later. When I eventually did so, with this image, just recently and dug a little deeper, I was quite amazed at what I discovered.
More often than not I find dead-ends, but this small beginning produced a gothic tale worthy of Hollywood – although it did take a little finding. There is, though, sadly no proof, one way or the other, as to whether the portrait was her. Perhaps the ‘colouring’ is right, but maybe this was of a younger woman? But, by the end, I had it fixed in my mind that it was of the heroine of the piece – that it was Florence.
There are quite despicable excuses for humanity in our own digital age, mostly male of course, who think it is fine to place private photographs on-line of former partners/wives/girl-friends/one night stands/whoever naked, or in compromising positions, for others to gawk at – predominantly male too. But if you think this is a thoroughly modern phenomena – think again. Robert Wilson Shufeldt was at it too – but obviously not in the same way. Here’s his story – and that of his victim – the remarkable Florence.
Google Robert Wilson Shufeldt and most references are for this fellow’s father. He has the same appellation (of course) – and was more historically famous than his son. He was an admiral on the Union side in the war that tore the nation apart. But Robert junior is there if one looks carefully. Delve deeper and his whole miserable existence can be exposed.
He was a bright lad, was Robert. He grew to become a Renaissance man of sorts – but with none if the enlightenment usually associated with that accolade. He was an ornithologist and it was his study of the avian species that led him to Florence. It has even been reported that he was the man who dissected the very last specimen of passenger pigeon on the planet – and what a sorrowful story that poor creature’s demise is. As well, this fellow was a renowned osteologist (expert on bones), myologist (of muscular systems), museologist (of museums and their systems) and ethnographist (of people and cultures). And he dabbled in the photography of the nude – purely for scientific purposes, you understand.
The younger Shufeldt was born in 1850 and spent the Civil War serving on one of his father’s vessels. In 1872 he enrolled at Cornell University, studying medicine. On graduation he joined the army and RWS went on to serve as a surgeon in the Indian Wars. It was at this time he commenced collecting. From that point on and throughout the remainder of his life he put together a vast trove of biological specimens, but eventually started to specialise in denizens of the air. Human anatomy also became his forte. Over the course of his career he published over a thousand books, articles and papers on a widely diverse range of subjects. One such was entitled ‘America’s Greatest Problem – the Negro’. He was, not unusually for the time, in the firm belief of the racial supremacy of whiter peoples. Determined to assist in proving that notion he took to exhuming the skeletons of North American Indians – something that we know from our own island’s bleak history wasn’t so unusual for the time either. For all these fine works, or so they were considered, RWS was appointed to the august post of Honorary Curator of the Smithsonian Institute.
But it was with his private life that Shufeldt, inadvertently, made his greatest contribution to society. His outrageous behaviour so shocked the powers to be at the time that it changed the way the American legal system viewed the rights of women and increased the move away from them being regarded as mere chattels of their husbands. Agonisingly slowly, the march for equality in the eyes of the law was starting to commence around that time – Shufeldt assisting it to get traction.
The scientist was wedded three times, firstly to one Catherine Badcock. Back in that period, when divorce was frowned on, many unscrupulous men, on finding their married situation holding them back in any way, would conspire to have their unwanted appendage certified as insane on the flimsiest of excuses. The next step would see these unfortunate souls installed in a lunatic asylum. That was Catherine’s fate. She had no means of fighting back so she took an also not uncommon path – she committed suicide. Why Catherine displeased her hubby I was not able to discern – but there seems no doubt she was very much the wronged party.
While all this was occurring Shufeldt continued his writing, with his ornithological work bringing him into contact with Maria Audubon. Now any twitcher worth his/her salt would recognise that surname. John James Audubon, Maria’s grandfather, is god to American bird-lovers. Shufeldt was a member of the Audubon Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). He and Maria published papers together in its journal. She was a spinster – thank heavens that term is disappearing from our language. Her sister, forty-two year old Florence, was also a reluctant member of the spinsterhood.
And so Maria bought sister Florence and RWS together. Being the type of self-aggrandising person he allegedly was, it would be quite a feather in his cap, excuse the pun, to be wedded to an Aubudon. He wasn’t really serious about her for, as soon as the nuptials were over, he was having it off with the home help, Scandinavian Alfhild Dagny Cowum. He wasn’t at all subtle about it, assuming he’d sort Florence out later if she presented any problems. He obviously didn’t know his new wife at all well. Two months into the marriage she was suing for divorce on the grounds of adultery – an unusual and brave step for a woman to take back then. Initially Robert thought all this mattered little. Being a man (of sorts) of his times, he took it as gospel the notion that the male of the species was entitled to affairs on the side. It was only to be expected of a fellow as virile as he. And normally this would be the case – but Florence was not as much a woman of her times as he took for granted. She would not be subjected by him. She was persistent and she never gave up. It was a long, tedious, demeaning and convoluted process she had to endure to see justice – but she fought bitterly to attain it. She was bold enough to convince court after court to see it her way. This, despite all the mud that her husband could throw at her; despite the despicable act he perpetrated when the mud didn’t stick. In the midst of all of it he did find time to take his mistress as his third wife. Florence gave him the wherewithal to do that – not that in any way is he deserving of any form of sympathy. She was also vital in his fall from grace.
What was shocking were the lengths Shufeldt went to to get his own back on Florence, once his wife was granted a divorce by the Maryland courts. It shocked him to the core that it was ruled he also was required to pay alimony. In the usual manner of men back then, with a rare adverse decision going against them, he simply took the common step and filed for bankruptcy. The thinking was that would put paid to any financial call she could have on him. He hadn’t figured, though, with his former wife’s determination to prove that this ploy was patently unfair. After all, he was still receiving a perfectly fine pension from the US army – surely she had a right to that, if indeed he was in dire monetary straits. She very much doubted this to be the true. She took her case all the way to the US Supreme Court – and in doing so took on the US Army as well. Compounding her problems there were the boffins at the AOU who were concerned what the impending scandal would do to their organisation’s standing. They took legal means to try and get her to desist. She refused. All this caused great publicity but again, with the bit between her teeth, she was unswerving in her campaign for her rights – and she ultimately prevailed. The loophole of bankruptcy was closed and the precedent had been set to apply that judgement to all future women in similar circumstances.
Now, what of the link to the abhorrent practice of placing intimate images on-line of women who have had the effrontery to displease their men folk in some way? Well, it was what Shufeldt published during these proceedings that caused him to lose all sympathy from those in positions of judgement. It was considered that he had well and truly crossed the line – even for that misogynist era.
It was not unknown for him to publish nude photos of women in his various scientific writings. His book, ‘Studies of the Human Form for Artists, Sculptors and Scientists’, was full of them. But when ‘On Female Impotency’ came out and it transpired that the nudes enclosed within were of his wife Florence, all hell broke loose for the slime-ball that was RWS. Supposedly a piece in the guise of being ‘scientific’, he wrote of a woman who had left a physician, who shall remain nameless, describing this anonymous wife as ‘…immoral, hysterical and not a virgin when she married.’ He also submitted that, shockingly, said woman also possessed the blood of a mulatto – a clear reference to the great bird-painter’s own mother. This outraged the AOU and the Smithsonian – they disowned him immediately. This only caused a fit of pique from Robert S who promptly marched up to their doors demanding all his specimens back. What a cheek they had not taking his side!
So what do we take out of all this? Probably that there is nothing new under the sun in this world. That it rebounded and the odious man received his just desserts is a plus. Hopefully that can happen to most of Shufeldt’s present day equivalents. All of this unseemly carry-on took it’s toll on the poor possum’s health. Most of his final years he was to be found brooding and wheezing in various sanatoriums before he did the planet a favour by dying in 1934.
It took years and years for Florence to obtain her legal win with, as a spin off, ever so slowly she assisted in setting in motion the creaky wheels of justice to make life more tolerable for the women of her time. She is worthy of greater recognition for this – and I still cannot help but wonder if that portrait that so intrigued me is indeed of her.
I’ll leave the final word to one of her supporters during her lengthy ordeal, Elliott Coves, who wrote – ‘Dr Shufeldt is morally a cancer – the most vilest and most depraved wretch I ever met. His former wife had committed suicide in an insane asylum to which his brutalities had consigned her. The horrors of poor Florence Audubon’s situation I never saw surpassed.’