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Museum Files: Audubon legacy outshines scandal

Museum Files: Audubon legacy outshines scandal


Editor’s note: The Museum Files is an ongoing series telling the stories behind artifacts at local museums and institutions.

Maria Audubon, granddaughter of celebrated wildlife artist John James Audubon, strived to be a proper Victorian lady.

After moving to Salem in 1880 with her mother Caroline and younger sister Florence, Maria spent more than a decade trying to cleanse and consecrate the Audubon name by editing and publishing a purified version of her grandfather’s journals.

Although the naturalist, who died in 1851, had achieved international fame in his lifetime and remained a figure respected for his groundbreaking bird illustrations and his scientific contributions to the field of ornithology, rumors about his lineage and criticism of his work continued to circulate decades after his death.

The family fortune acquired from Audubon’s publication of the monumental “Birds of America,” originally published in a multi-volume set between 1827 and 1838 and republished in a smaller-scale edition in 1845, had dwindled. Audubon became ill while working on “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” a multi-volume set focusing on the animals of the continent. His son, John Woodhouse Audubon, continued the project, but the family soon ran out of money.

“Audubon was so incredibly successful that there must have been sort of a vacuum after he died. His widow and sons had to sell copper plates for pennies on the dollar,” said David J. Wagner, author of “American Wildlife Art.”

In 1857, widow Lucy Audubon resumed teaching at the age of 70 to help make ends meet. By 1863, she had sold her husband’s bird drawings to the New York Historical Society for $4,000. She also had to sell much of the family’s personal property, including their country estate near New York City, to satisfy bankruptcy debt. A few years later, the Phelps Dodge Co. purchased all but 80 of the original “The Birds of America” copper printing plates for scrap metal. Most were melted down.

Maria, daughter of John Woodhouse Audubon, was just 7 when her grandfather died. After her own father died in 1862, she took over the task of turning around the family’s misfortunes and making John James Audubon a legendary American along the lines of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Her dedication to magnifying the Audubon name aligned her with several noted scholars of the day, including Robert W. Shufeldt, a respected member of the Smithsonian Institution and a founder of American Ornithologists’ Union. The collaboration with Shufeldt had symbiotic promise, with two prominent American families uniting in a field that became a popular pastime in Victorian America.

Just a few months later, however, Shufeldt would drag the Audubon name through the mud, making wild sexual accusations about the family. The scandal rocked both the Smithsonian Institution and the bird enthusiast community and eventually led to a Supreme Court case that set a precedent for modern divorce and bankruptcy law.

Rare specimens

At the Center for Folklife, History & Cultural Programs at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, visitors are often surprised to see three Audubon elephant folio edition lithographs — the American Flamingo, Blue Jay and Ground Hog/Marmot — framed and hanging on the library walls.

“They do attract quite a bit of attention, especially the flamingo,” said Todd DeGarmo, founding director of the Folklife Center.

The valuable prints were part of a gift to the library in 1930 from Mark L. Sheldon, president of Salem National Bank. Secured through L.F. Hyde, who served as library president at the time, the acquisition also included several items not on regular display to the public, including an eight-volume octavo 1870-71 edition of “The Birds of America”; a copy of “Audubon’s Western Journal,” written by John Woodhouse Audubon with a biographical memoir by Maria Audubon; and Maria Audubon’s two-volume “Audubon and His Journals,” published in 1897.

DeGarmo surmises Sheldon procured the Audubon collection — either through gift or purchase — from the Audubon family in Salem. In 1931, Sheldon also arranged for Florence Audubon to give a fragment of a letter written and signed by her grandfather to the library.

“This is indeed the crown to our Audubon Collection and you can imagine how touched and grateful we are at this instance of your interest and of Miss Audubon’s sympathetic generosity,” Hyde wrote about the Audubon signature in a 1931 letter to Sheldon.

For DeGarmo, the items, aside from their significant historical and monetary value, are a fitting addition to the regional library’s holdings.

“Audubon’s granddaughters lived in Salem for around 50 years, and Maria is the one who compiled the journals and put together the definitive book about her grandfather,” he said.

Just a few years after Maria’s death in 1925, the Audubon name already was established as a permanent fixture in American history. But at the end of the 19th century, the family’s legacy seemed more precarious.

Bird of prey

Dr. Robert. W. Shufeldt, son of celebrated Rear Admiral Robert Wilson Shufeldt, had an impeccable resume.

During the Civil War, Shufeldt served as a captain’s clerk and signal officer with the rank of midshipman aboard the U.S. Gunboat Proteus under his father. He went on to attend Cornell University and received a medical degree in 1876 from Columbian Medical College, now George Washington University.

Upon graduation, he procured an appointment as lieutenant in the medical department of the Army, becoming assistant surgeon at Fort McHenry in Maryland and later serving as surgeon on the frontier in America’s campaign against the Sioux. In 1882, Shufeldt was named curator in the Army Medical Museum. He retired in 1891 with a disability for heart disease.

Shufeldt had a thirst for knowledge, delving into a variety of different disciplines. His anthropological work was featured at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the world’s fair that built anthropological holdings for the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. He also was fascinated by biology, advancing medical technology and museology, the study of museums.

He grew up admiring the work of John James Audubon and his meticulous studies of American birds. Ornithology — especially the study of bird structures, bones and fossils — remained a major passion. In 1895, he joined forces with another ornithologist to steer the editorial management of “The Nidiologist,” an illustrated monthly magazine devoted to bird science.

In “A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon,” author Mark V. Barrow Jr. wrote about Shufeldt’s brief alliance with the Audubons.

After publishing a short biographical article on John James Audubon, Shufeldt received several letters from Maria. The correspondence became a friendship, which led to Maria and Shufeldt co-writing an article on the last known portrait of her grandfather.

Through Maria, Shufeldt met Florence in the summer of 1895. She was 42 and he was 44. They got married one month later.

The September 1895 issue of “The Nidiologist” publicized the ceremony.

“The many friends of Dr. R.W. Shufeldt and Miss Florence Audubon, granddaughter of the famous author of ‘Birds of America,’ will congratulate them on their wedding, which was solemnized on Wednesday afternoon, September 4, at Salem. N.Y. They will make their home in Washington.”

For Florence, the wedding would have been a rise in social status. In 1895, two unmarried sisters would have been considered spinsters.

“Marriage was the ideal in the Victorian age,” said Catherine Golden, a professor of Victorian literature and culture at Skidmore College. “Women who were not married were called redundant women — as well as old maids. The ultimate goal for a woman was to marry and reproduce, otherwise she was redundant, repeating her girlhood.”

The marriage was Florence’s first and Shufeldt’s second. Shufeldt’s first wife, Catherine Babcock, had committed suicide three years earlier, after being locked up in an asylum.

Despite the union of the two great names in ornithology, the marriage didn’t last.

“Unfortunately, marital problems immediately befell the Shufeldt household in Takoma Park, Md.,” Barrows wrote in “A Passion for Birds.” “Versions of exactly what led to the couple’s breakup vary, but within two months of the marriage, Florence Audubon Shufeldt had fled back to her mother’s house in New York.”

Ruffled feathers

The separation was ugly.

Florence claimed her husband was having an affair with his housekeeper, a young Norwegian immigrant named Alfhild Dagny Lowum, and she wanted a divorce.

Shufeldt had no intention of allowing that to happen.

Even in the late Victorian era, when puritanical morals were beginning to ease, married women faced a double standard.

“It was still much harder for a woman to get a divorce than a man — there are still grave consequences. The husband could very much move on. He could file for divorce. He could much easier claim adultery, but for women, it was still a perilous step,” Golden said.

While Florence tried to resume her life in Salem, Shufeldt went on the attack. He allegedly blackmailed his wife by threatening to publish a graphic article directed at her.

He soon released a “scholarly” paper titled “On the Medico-legal Aspects of Impotency in Women.” The document featured an account of a physician’s wife who was “immoral, hysterical and not a virgin when she married.”

“Although couched in terms of an objective scientific discussion, to anyone familiar with the couple, it was clear the main target of Shufeldt’s generally misogynistic outburst was his second wife,” Barrow writes in “A Passion for Birds.” “Shufeldt claimed his previously unmarried wife — who had earlier been engaged for 12 years — came from an ‘extremely erotic family,’ exhibited many ‘decided signs of melancholia,’ was ‘fond of strong drinks’ and ‘prone to self abuse.’ ”

The publication also included nude photographs of a woman, likely Florence. Shufeldt described the subject as a “mulatto,” possibly a dig at rumors about the racial background of John James Audubon’s mother.

“The notion of white purity was still really strong. An allusion to her being a mulatto would have been a huge handicap. People talked a lot about eugenics (the separation of people considered to be genetically inferior),” Golden said.

Shufeldt distributed copies of the article with the stamp “Compliments of Dr. R. W. Shufeldt, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.” and was reported to have told colleagues the material was based on his own wife.

The Smithsonian removed Shufeldt from its list of associates, and the American Ornithologists’ Union, an organization Shufeldt helped establish, was in chaos over the controversy.

Elliott Coues, another prominent ornithologist and friend of the Audubon sisters, wanted to “purge the Union of such a pestilent member.” According to Coues, “Shufeldt must go for the honor, dignity and even safety of the AOU.”

“Why don’t I kill the cursed scoundrel ... good God — I have been trying to do so for two years, and so have many other persons ... Dr. Shufeldt is morally a cancer — the vilest and most depraved wretch I ever knew. His former wife 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,” Coues wrote in a letter.

Shufeldt defended his article, claiming it was “of a strictly scientific nature.”

In 1897, representatives from the AOU, including Coues, mailed formal charges to Shufeldt, accusing him of “conduct unbecoming a gentleman.” Shufeldt countercharged, claiming his accusers had themselves committed “conduct unbecoming of a gentleman, in being party to a scheme to create a public scandal” and were “making false statements of the grossest possible character.”

Although some members of the union were adamant about defending the Audubons, others preferred the organization avoid the controversy. At the 1897 annual meeting, the AOU council members considered the case for hours.

Coues stated members of the committee were of “one opinion of the wretch, but exactly opposite as to the expediency of expelling him.” Although the group decided to drop the matter, Shufeldt did not go unpunished.

“But in a strange twist of events that betrayed the extent to which the notion of the AOU as a gentleman’s club still prevailed, two days after the council decided it had no jurisdiction in the case, it unanimously passed a motion instructing the editor of ‘The Auk’ to decline any articles Shufeldt might submit to the AOU’s official journal,” Barrow wrote.

The Shufeldts’ divorce went to trial in a Maryland court in 1898. Several witnesses testified they saw Shufeldt and Lowum in compromising situations both before and after his marriage to Florence. The judge granted Florence a divorce.

The decision is significant, because women were not considered equals at the time. It wasn’t until 1917 New York would grant women the right to vote, which went national three years later with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

According to Golden, Florence’s situation would have been much different just a few decades earlier.

“It’s still a daring move, but not as daring as in 1848 or 1860. Women were getting a fairer shake in the courts. More women were emboldened to come forward,” she said. “The woman was still probably humiliated. She couldn’t just easily divorce and move on. It was a very serious step.”

Cock fight

As part of the divorce, Florence received the right to resume the use of her maiden name, and the judge ruled Shufeldt should pay his former wife alimony at the rate of $50 per month.

The amount was a sizeable sum at the time. According to Tim Weidner, director of The Chapman Historical Museum in Glens Falls, the average annual income in the United States in 1895 was $300.

“So $50 a month would have provided a modest living,” Weidner said.

Weidner cites a Montgomery Ward catalog from that year that sold a “Silver Star” standard buggy for $53.25.

Shufeldt ignored the alimony order, however, and refused to pay any money to his former wife. Later that year, he married Lowum, the housekeeper at the center of the divorce controversy.

Florence demanded justice and continued to pursue the matter in the courts.

“That was really unusual. She was an unnaturally strong woman,” Golden said. “She lived with her sister, so she did have a support system. Many women wouldn’t have had the conviction to have her name scandalized. She is an example of what we call the independent woman — the new woman. She was able to really move beyond traditional notions of women as passive. She had more agency and power, and she certainly exerted it in the court system.”

To avoid the alimony order, Shufeldt filed for bankruptcy in 1899, claiming he was indebted in the amount of $4,538.33 and had no assets which were not exempt under the Bankrupt Act of 1898, including the $800 he owed Florence in back alimony payments.

In addition to pursuing the matter through the courts, Florence took her grievances to the Army, which was providing Shufeldt with a pension.

The Jan. 7, 1900, edition of the Los Angeles Herald reported on the controversy of Shufeldt’s court martial hearing on a “charge of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”

“This case is a peculiar one in that it involves the right of the military authorities to compel a retired officer of the army to submit himself to the jurisdiction of a state court for the satisfaction of a private obligation,” the article reads. “The courts of Maryland granted the petition of the wife of Shufeldt for divorce and decreed the payment of alimony to a certain amount. It is represented that in order to evade this judgment, Captain Shufeldt changed his residence to the District of Columbia, where he was subsequently judicially declared bankrupt. His wife appealed to the war department to assist her in collecting the alimony awarded by the Maryland court, with the result that Adjutant General Corbin, by direction of the secretary of war, ordered Captain Shufeldt to place himself within the jurisdiction of the Maryland court.”

Shufeldt disputed the right of the war department to interfere and refused to obey the order. His lawyer was able to delay the hearings by citing “insufficient time to prepare the defense.”

Florence, however, would have the last word. She took her fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on Audubon v. Shufelt in 1901.

The court’s ruling states, “Alimony does not arise from any business transaction but from the relation of marriage. It is not founded on a contract, express or implied, but on the natural and legal duty of the husband to support the wife. The general obligation to support is made specific by the decree of the court of appropriate jurisdiction ... But its obligation in that respect does not reflect its nature.”

The ruling recognized support obligations owed to a spouse, former spouse or child are not subject to discharge in bankruptcy. More than 110 years later, the precedent-setting case continues to be cited in legal hearings.

Coming tomorrow: Audubon granddaughter falsifies family journals and destroys most of the originals to cover up mess.


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