Wild Women Of The West: Eliza Stewart Boyd


A half-dozen rosy-cheeked children, bundled in heavy coats and wearing woolen hats and gloves, tromped over the frozen ground toward the new schoolhouse in Laramie, Wyoming, on February 15, 1869.  Their teacher, thirty-six-year-old Eliza Stewart, happily greeted the pupils as they hurried into the building.  Their cold lips stretched into a smile as she ushered them toward a potbellied stove dutifully warming the room.  Seven other students would arrive before Eliza asked everyone to take their seats and the day’s lessons began.  She was excited to teach the boys and girls the fundamentals that would better their lives.  Her teaching style was friendly and inviting, and the class was eager to be educated.  

Eliza had been practicing her trade for more than a decade before becoming the first public schoolteacher in Albany County, Wyoming.  A tragedy in her life at the age of thirteen dictated her future calling.  Her mother had died shortly after giving birth to her eighth child.  Eliza, who was the oldest, took on the responsibility of caring for her brothers and sisters.  Part of that care involved teaching her siblings how to read and write.  She realized then she had a talent for teaching and decided to pursue her passion when she got older.

Eliza was born on September 8, 1833, in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.  She excelled in school, and, after she graduated, she attended the Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania.  Eliza ended her four years there in 1861 as class valedictorian.  The speech she gave to her fellow students at the graduation ceremony was written in the form of a poem and aptly expressed the principles that guided her life. 

“We, too, go forth at duty’s call, knowing there’s much to do; the harvest truly plenteous is, while laborers are few.  For anyone who in this world would well perform her part must strive not only to do good but must be good at heart.”

With degree in hand, Eliza returned to Crawford County to teach students in her hometown.  After seven years, she decided she wanted to move west to help educate the influx of children settling in the new frontier with their ambitious parents.  Eliza arrived in Laramie, Wyoming, on December 16, 1868.  When news that a teacher had come to the wild town, leaders sought her out to offer her a position at the school which was soon to be built.  She gladly accepted and less than three months later started work.  Her students barely had time to fully appreciate her flair for teaching when she was selected to take part in a history making event.  

In the fall of 1869, lawmakers in Wyoming’s first territorial legislature passed a bill granting women over the age of twenty-one the right to vote.  On December 10, 1869, territorial governor John A. Campbell signed the document into law.  Eliza, an ardent advocate of women’s suffrage and who helped to have that right incorporated into the law, was pleased women would have a chance to represent themselves at the polls.  Wyoming was one of the first areas west of the Mississippi to support such an idea.  Nearly three months after women were given the vote, Wyoming Territory made news for another momentous first, that of giving women the right to serve on a grand jury.

The first name drawn for jury duty in March 1870 was Eliza Stewart.  The names of five other women were also drawn.  The women would be joined by seven men to decide the fate of an individual arrested for murder.  The news of the first women summoned to a grand jury in any country made the headline of newspapers across the nation.  As a young girl in Pennsylvania, Eliza could never have foreseen that she’d be in a position where she was not only teaching history but making history as well.

The case she and the other jury members would be adjudicating involved a freight driver named Andrew Howie.  In late January 1870, Andrew was a guest at the Shamrock Hotel on Front Steet in Laramie which was owned by Pat Doran.  Andrew retired to his room early one evening after a hard day of work.  He was awakened in the dead of the night by a loud ruckus in the lobby.  John Hoctor, a gambler and noted troublemaker, was playing cards with a few friends when a quarrel broke out.  Hoctor was drunk and mad and repeatedly firing his gun at nothing in particular.  The commotion rousted Andrew from his bed, and, with gun in hand, he raced downstairs to find out what was going on.  When he reached the lobby, he saw Hoctor waving his gun about.  Andrew approached him, and Hoctor leveled his gun at the man’s head.  Andrew grabbed the barrel of the gun and pushed the weapon out of the way.  At the same time, he pointed his own gun at Hoctor and cocked the trigger.  Both men then fired their pistols.   The bullet from Hoctor’s gun grazed the hotel proprietor’s arm.  The bullet from Andrew’s gun struck Hoctor in the chest, and he was dead when he hit the floor.

Andrew was a handsome, affable man who was well liked by the community.  Hoctor, on the other hand, was considered by most to be a contemptable human being.  He was frequently involved in barroom brawls and routinely insulted women.  It came as no surprise that someone shot him.  What stunned the citizens of Laramie was that Andrew did the killing.  

Judge John H. Howe, chief justice of the Territorial Wyoming Supreme Court, presided over the case of the Wyoming Territory vs. Andrew Howie.  Given that the territory had extended the right to vote to women, Judge Howe believed this right extended to serving on a jury.  News that women would be serving as jurists was not well received by much of the public.  According to an article in the October 4, 1940, edition of the Cheyenne Leader, many men were filled with righteous indignation that their places should be usurped by women whom they believed didn’t know anything about law.

“The law-breakers and evil-doers…were filled with consternation, not feeling so secure as in the past, tho [sic] there were many [law-abiding men] ready to reassure them that they had nothing to fear, for women were chickenhearted, and their tender feelings could easily be wrought upon by the lawyers, who would only have to make a pathetic appeal and the women jurors would show the white feather and capitulate at once.”

Although there was more than enough criticism about women “infiltrating an area of society that should be solely overseen by men,” there were a few who championed the move.  Wilhelm Frederick Ludwig, the German emperor and king of Prussia, sent a letter to President Ulysses Grant congratulating him on “this evidence of progress, enlightenment, and civil liberty in America.”

The women jurists were mobbed by reporters and cartoonists as they made their way into the courtroom in early March 1870.  Some of the women wore veils over their faces for fear the artists on the scene would sketch them in an unflattering way.  Their fears were justified.  “We were caricatured in the most hideous manner,” one of the women later remembered.  “Some of us were represented as holding babies in our laps, and a threadbare couplet accompanied the drawing and appeared in about every newspaper: ‘“Baby, baby, don’t get in a fury; Your mamma’s gone to sit on the jury.”’

A story in the March 12, 1870, edition of the Weekly Commercial Herald expressed the thoughts of many men from coast to coast.  “What sane woman aspires to be brought thus in direct contact with the disgusting details of dark and sickening crime?” the article read.  “What benefit can possibly inure to her, or her sex?  It occurs to us that she should be glad to know that all these rough and unpleasant duties of societies have been kept from her.  None of them are the pleasures of life.  They are its most disagreeable duties, and men only perform them because they cannot avoid them.  And yet there is a class of mad women who preach that the salvation, hope, and safety of the female sex demand that they, too, shall have a part in these transactions.  Where have women been wronged by society or by law?  Her very weakness has been her greatest safeguard.  Man has taken pleasure in protecting and guarding with affectionate care that which could not protect itself.”  

Judge Howe was mindful of the trials the women were experiencing and addressed the issue when he met with the grand jury before the proceedings began on March 7, 1870.  “For those women on the jury….” he began, “you shall not be driven by the sneers, jeers, and insults of a living crowd from the temple of justice as your sisters have from the medical colleges of the land; the strong hand of the law shall protect you, that it will be a sorry day for any man who shall so far forget the courtesies due and paid by every American gentleman to every American lady as even by word or act to endeavor to deter you from the exercise of those rights with which the law has destined you.”  

Shortly after the judge’s comments to the women, the first panel of lady grand jurors in the world were sworn in.  None asked to be excused.  Judge Howe then spoke to the jury as a whole.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the grand jury:  It is an innovation and a great novelty to see, as we do today, ladies summoned to serve as grand jurors; the extension of political rights and franchise to women is a subject that is agitating the whole country.  I have never taken an active part in these discussions but have long seen that woman was a victim to the vices, crimes, and immoralities of man, with no power to protect and defend herself from those evils.  I have long felt that such powers of protection should be conferred upon woman, and it has fallen to our lot here to act as pioneers in their movement and to test the question.  

“The eyes of the whole world are today fixed upon this jury of Albany County.  There is not the slightest impropriety in any ladies occupying this position, and I wish to assure you that the fullest protection of the court shall be accorded to you; it would be a most shameful scandal that in our temples of justice and in our courts of law anything should be permitted which the most sensitive lady may not with propriety hear and witness.

“I will conclude with the remark that this is a question for you to decide for yourselves; no man has any right to interfere.  It seems to me to be eminently proper for women to sit upon grand juries which will give them the best possible opportunities to aid in suppressing the dens of infamy which curse the country.  I shall be glad of your assistance in the accomplishment of this object.  I do not make this remark from any distrust of the gentlemen of Albany County; on the contrary, I am exceedingly well pleased and gratified with the indications of intelligence, love of law and good order, and the gentlemanly deportment, which is so manifest.”

Andrew Howie’s trial lasted three days.  Each day they were escorted to the Union Pacific Hotel to spend the night.  A male bailiff stood guard over the room containing the six men, and a woman bailiff was stationed in front of the room containing the six women.  In the end, the grand jury indited Howie for murder.  One woman believed he was guilty of first-degree murder, and three felt he should be indicted for manslaughter.  Three of the men on the jury also felt he should be indicted for manslaughter, and three found the accused not guilty.  

Wyomin,g at that time, didn’t have a penitentiary, so Judge Howe sentenced Andrew to ten years hard labor at the Detroit House of Corrections.  He was pardoned after serving less than three years.  

Eliza turned her full attention back to her students once the trial concluded.  The number of students at the school had increased substantially in the short time she was gone.  In May 1870, the school had eighty-three pupils.  She shared her experience serving on the jury with her classes.  It was a teachable moment not only for her students but for all who had believed women were too frail to hear the details of a brutal crime and render a proper verdict.

On July 21, 1870, Eliza married Stephen Boyd, a machinist in the Union Pacific car repair shop.  The two were wed in Cheyenne and returned to Laramie to live.  There, Eliza was not only busy as a schoolteacher but was a founding member of the Wyoming Literary and Library Association.  She was also involved in local government.  In 1873, Eliza would become the first woman in the territory to be nominated to run for the legislature.   

Eliza instilled a love of poetry in her eager students and the three daughters she and Stephen had.  Whatever the occasion, the ambitious schoolteacher was compelled to write poems about her home, children, her pupils, or life in Wyoming.  In the winter of 1871, a severe snowstorm struck Laramie preventing the trains from getting through.  The harsh weather interfered with a wedding that was scheduled to take place in town.  The delayed nuptial was the subject of a poem Eliza penned entitled The Snow, the Beautiful Snow.

“Oh, the snow, the beautiful snow, on the mountains above, in the valleys below.  It covers the earth like a spotless sheet and hides the food the beast would eat, till hungry yea, starving he roams to and fro, and at last lies down in the beautiful snow.  Without strength to rise he lies down and dies, and the snow rears a mound to tell where he lies.  The charity of this world, which all hearts should warm, is often quite like the snow to the beasts.

“Neglected, alone, earth’s toilers die, then the world rears a monument to tell where they lie.  Oh, the snow, the beautiful snow.  That says to the engine, Thou shalt not go!  It stops the wheels of the wonderous car, and says to the traveler, only thus far.  The bridegroom doth tarry, the bride waits in vain.  The sign of his coming, the sound of the train.”

Eliza Stewart Boyd, the schoolteacher who made history, died on March 9, 1912, after slipping and falling on a patch of ice and breaking a hip.  Her death occurred forty-two years to the days after she completed her duties on the grand jury.  Eliza was seventy-eight years old when she passed away.

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