Monday, June 17, 2024
What's Readable

An unheralded St. Louis philanthropist finally gets some recognition

 

THE UNSTOPPABLE ELIZA HAYCRAFT: A NOVEL by Diana Dempsey. Published July 2023 by Bramerton Press, a Diana Dempsey imprint. 512 pages.

Book Review by Michael Pierce

“I’m not one to pass much time thinking about things before I do them.”

The first line of this book conjures up an image of Mattie Ross, the heroine of True Grit.

I must confess that Eliza Haycraft has been one of my historical crushes since I first learned her story about 40 years ago. Eliza came to St. Louis at a quite interesting time in St. Louis’ history.

Escaping an abusive husband, Eliza arrived in St. Louis in the late 1840s. She became a prostitute. After earning enough money to open her own bordello she had, by the time of her death in 1871, amassed a fortune of nearly $30 million dollars in today’s dollars, owned five cathouses, and became one of St. Louis’ leading philanthropists. She was illiterate, but she had a good head for numbers.

Diana Dempsey

Eliza Haycraft came to St. Louis at a time when the city was growing by leaps and bounds, only to experience massive destruction with the Great Fire of 1849. She came at a time when German and Irish immigrants were arriving at a frenetic rate, when slavery was becoming a divisive institution in Missouri. She fraternized with the elite of antebellum and post-bellum St. Louis, while at the same time becoming a major benefactor for the city’s poorer classes. Legend has it that, when she was on her deathbed, she was refused burial at Bellefontaine Cemetery, so she had an assistant retrieve some of her ledgers, show them to the directors of Bellefontaine and tell them, if necessary, she would divulge some of the names within. She was approved to be buried in a block in the cemetery, nearly smack dabbed in the middle of the block, with no other graves, and no grave marker. Her funeral was one of most well-attended in St. Louis history. She still rests there today.

Diana Dempsey has written an excellent novel about the life of Miss Haycraft, at the same time telling the story of St. Louis during the time Eliza lived here. Eliza Haycraft was not a woman to be trifled with. She could be tough as nails one minute, empathetic the next, when she encountered fellow soiled doves and children in distress. She never backed down from any human or challenge. Diana Dempsey gives us a story of a feminist who never heard that word, a woman who never forgot where she came from, a woman who helped others, regardless of race.

So, I occasionally wander over to Bellefontaine Cemetery, McCurdy Section, Block 20, Lot 2076, leaving a bouquet and a silent prayer, for one of St. Louis’ true unsung heroines.

 

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