Civil War Era Tricksters The archetype of the trickster can be found in journals and books from the field of depth psychology, especially archetypal psychology. My doctoral dissertation is on the trickster, focusing on criminalized male drug addicts. Many other writers in depth psychology has delineated the trickster from various perspectives and have made the trickster an enduring enigma.
We’re all familiar with the trickster in one form or another. Either we are or have been acquainted with one, or at least we’ve seen them on the big screen. Probably the most famous trickster is Frank Abagnale Jr., who Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed in the 2002 movie Catch me if you can. This contemporary trickster is a former con artist, forger and imposter who, for five years in the 1960s, passed bad checks worth more than $2.5 million in 26 countries. During this time, he used eight aliases, and even more to cash bad checks.
Another famous trickster was Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., who Tony Curtis portrayed in the 1961 movie The great imposter. This trickster became a marine, a monk, and a schoolteacher. He also stole the identity of a military prison warden and a surgeon, then impersonated both of them.
Most tricksters aren’t as famous and colorful as the two previous examples. Our most common contemporary trickster figures are those involved in the criminal element, mostly drug addicts, plying their schemes for their next bag. In my former life as a drug addict, I was one of these tricksters, but not in the way one might think. I was a salesman in service stations who conned the traveling public into buying automotive parts, through unethical, and quite illegal, sales practices. I poked holes in and cut the tires of tourists, and squirted oil on their shock absorbers, fuel pumps, and fan clutches. In the late 1960s and early 70s, one or two hundred dollars a day was pretty good money. To read more on this, go to my website @ www.ScumbagSewerRats.com and click on my 1992 article, Lube bay bandits.
Mythology is rife with trickster figures such as the wily coyote. However, the following stories aren’t mythology. Sheep farmers tried to kill off wolves and coyotes by planting dead animal carcasses laced with strychnine. The ploy worked on wolves, but the coyotes were suspicious of these lures. They would sniff around a bit as they walked around it, then trot off to look for something a little more appetizing. Also, a frustrated trapper told about when he would set metal leg traps, he would usually catch muskrat, mink, skunk, and even fox, but rarely would he catch a coyote in his trap. The reason is, coyotes establish a kind of rapport with the trap, which would lead even the most suspicious to the conclusion that coyotes must have a sense of humor. What else could explain the well-known inclination of seasoned coyotes to dig up the traps, flip them over, and then urinate or defecate on them, then trot away panting and looking back, as though laughing at the stupid trapper?
Here’s a contemporary trickster tale: John is attracted to Mike’s wife. One evening while they are having dinner, John drops his fork. As he bent down to pick it up, he could see up the dress of Mike’s wife. Later, while making drinks in the kitchen, Mike’s wife asks John, "Did you see something you liked under that table?" Surprised by her boldness, John admits that he does. She says, "well, you can have it for $500." After thinking about it for about a millisecond, John agrees. She tells him to be at her house around 2 pm Friday.
John shows up at the house at 2 pm sharp, pays the $500, has his way with Mike’s wife, and then hurries away.
As usual, Mike comes home from work at 6 pm and upon entering the house he asks his wife: "Did John come by the house this afternoon?" With a lump in her throat, she answers, "Why yes, he did." Her heart skips a beat when Mike asks: "And did he give you $500?" After mustering up her best poker face, she replies: "Yes, he did." Mike, with a satisfied look on his face, says "good, I was hoping he did. John came by the office this morning and borrowed $500 from me. He promised he would stop by here on his way home and leave the money with you." Trickster dishonesty such as this isn’t a desirable trait for most people, but it’s certainly wickedly creative.
The trickster is an archetype, which means everybody has the potential to personify the trickster. Life’s circumstances usually causes our inner trickster to emerge. These days, drug addicts seem to personify the trickster more than any other population; however, during the Civil War era, there was much to be gained by incorporating trickster mechanisms by several types of people.
Whereas most tricksters, regardless of the era, are generally men, women such as Belle Boyd used trickster mechanisms to meet her needs. Mogelever (1960) tells us that in the evenings prisoners in Libby prison were permitted to crowd inside their room doors, where they could see and sometimes exchange a word with Belle. When this liberty wasn’t allowed, Belle would take a large marble, around which she would tie a note written on tissue paper, and when the guard’s back was turned, she would roll the marble into one of the open doors of the Confederates’ room. When the rebels read it, they replied in kind (p. 162).
Of course, most of us are aware of trickster mechanisms in prison populations, whether it was during the Civil War era or anytime before or since. It’s an environment that brings the trickster out of even the most unlikely. Having touched on a trickster mechanism that operated inside the walls, here’s one that an escapee used to avoid capture outside the walls.
Oneill (1956) quotes one of the Andrews raiders, William Pittenger, when referring to an escape resulting from being imprisoned for stealing a union train:
"Andrews and John Wollam were separated from the moment they left the prison. Wollam broke through the guards, and ran the gauntlet of hasty shots without injury. Soon he reached the river bank and, not wishing to attempt the passage in the growing light, hit upon the happy expedient of making the enemy believe that he was across. To this end he threw off his coat and vest, dropping them on the river bank, and then waded a little way in the water to throw the hounds off the scent. Quietly slipping back, he hid himself in a dense thicket of canes and rushes. The fugitive soon heard the hounds and men who were pursuing on the bank above and all about him. At length they found the clothing and concluded that he had taken to the river. They crossed over and searched unsuccessfully with their hounds along the water’s edge on the other side for the place he had come out. Concluding that Wollam was drowned, the party pursuing him returned" (p. 260).
When Wollam left his hiding place, he stole a canoe and paddled downstream all night.
Another population who most of us can visualize using trickster mechanisms, is the guerrilla bands. The worst of Quantrill’s band was Jesse Duncan. Leslie (1996) quotes Connelley with another machination performed by Jesse and his father:
"They bought horses and scored their tails on the under side and then tied [them] up in an elevated position to heal, usually suspended for a time from an over-head beam. This was a cruel process, resorted to for the purpose of causing the horse’s tail when healed to stand away from the body, giving it a graceful carriage, greatly improving the general appearance of the animal" (p. 40).
The value of the horses having been inflated considerably, they were then shipped to unsuspecting buyers in the East.
Jesse and his father were pulling a confidence game. As with most con games, many of them are still being done, but changed to accommodate the era in which it is being played. A classic example is the Drake’s fortune con, performed by various swindlers over many years. The most infamous being Oscar Hartzell, who bilked tens of thousands of people over a period of almost 30 years for millions of dollars. To read more about the world’s greatest confidence artist, see Rayner (2002).
As with Jessie Duncan, there were others who deceived the government with horse cons. One practice, writes Longacre (1972), popular with some businessmen was the re-branding of animals to change their designation from cavalry to artillery horses (the latter, usually larger and stronger, commanded higher prices on the market). Another favorite ruse involved dealing in unfit or diseased animals, which merchants could by cheaply and sell dearly to the Bureau’s purchasing agents, many of whom were susceptible to bribery (p. 96). There is no shortage of material delineating the myriad ways Civil War era tricksters bilked both the Yankee and the Rebel governments.
Commanders in the Civil War also developed a knack for tricking their opponents. For example, Longacre (1995) shares that when not notifying Richmond of the enemy’s movements, communicating orders and intelligence to Johnson and Hagood, sending scouts galloping in all directions, and trying to hasten the progress of Beauregard’s forces, Pickett had been shuttling noisy but empty trains in and out of town to give any Yankee within earshot the impression that Petersburg was being regularly reinforced (p. 148). This example is far from being an isolated case. Many commanders used these types of feints. It makes one wonder how it could continue to foil the opposition after having been used for so long.
There was another common ploy used by Civil War commanders. According to Werstein (1962), general Magruder pretended to have many more troops than were actually present by marching several brigades back and forth to create the illusion of numbers. Officers shouted orders to nonexistent troops, and the Union pickets reported tremendous activity within the enemy’s lines (p. 223).
We are reminded by Rhoades (1985), with similar ploys by general Magruder. He and general Hugar examined their entire line with great care and devised many methods of exhibiting an aggressive strength in an effort to deceive McClellan. Officers shouted commands to imaginary units, buglers sounded meaningless calls, soldiers were marched in circles by clearings in sight of the enemy and returned to the scene again and again, campfires were built for nonexistent soldiers, and an array of sound effects were utilized (p. 69). These commanders probably didn’t realize at the time that they wouldn’t need this many feats of skulduggery to dissuade McClellan from attacking.
Spies and scouts were tricky enough in their own right, but many commanders used spies and scouts for their own deceptive purposes. Cozzens (2000) concurs: from spies and scouts, Pope knew the numbers of the rebels and their route of march. He also knew that the secessionist population of Sedalia would pass on word of any movement to intercept the Rebel column. To deceive the watchful civilians, Pope let slip his destination to be Warsaw, a settlement on the Osage River due south of Sedalia. To lend credence to the ruse, on 15 December 1861 he took the southwest road out from Sedalia at the head of two brigades of infantry and portions of four regiments of cavalry. The next morning, the Federals turned due west for their true destination. The deception worked (p. 50).
In 1860 there was militia Camp Jackson that was disloyal; therefore, Nathaniel Lyon needed a way to observe without being observed. Franklin Dick, Frank Blair’s brother-in-law, provided him with a scheme. As Brooksher (1995) explains it, Blair’s blind mother-in-law was accustomed to taking coach rides through the city. Heavily veiled, she relied on her black driver to describe to her what he observed. Given these circumstances, it would be simple, said Dick , to disguise Lyon as the blind mother-in-law. Lyon could then survey the camp by touring it during the afternoon when it was open to visitors. In less than an hour, Lyon had seen what he came for. The impersonation was successful (p. 56).
Whereas Franklin Dick was the brainchild of the previous scheme that Lyon carried out, Lyon was himself was an accomplished trickster. On 24 April 1861, Captain James H. Stokes arrived from Illinois and met with Lyon. He was sent by Governor Yates to secure the 10,000 muskets the government had earlier approved for the Illinois troops, and he chartered the steamer, City of Alton, which lay tied across the river awaiting the arms. A trick was necessary to divert the attention of the secessionists while the weapons were loaded at the arsenal’s dock. Lyon devised a scheme.
According to Phillips (1990), Lyon circulated a rumor that at some time that night, he would attempt to transport a load of arms on the Fifth Street cars to the Tenth Ward Union Guards. Knowing that the spies would spot the activity immediately, Lyon intended to send the cars out at about midnight, gambling that the secessionists would take the bait and stop them. While their attention was thus diverted, Stokes would order his steamer captain to tie at the arsenal landing, without lights or whistles, in order to load the rifles. Their plan set, they waited for nightfall. At nine that night, four streetcars moved slowly up Fifth Street. As Lyon hoped, the spies quickly summoned their comrades from the local bars. They rushed to the cars and searched for the guns but found only an unsuspecting federal officer. Meanwhile, as the secessionists preyed upon the cars, the City of Angles docked quietly at the arsenal wharf, and the arms were loaded. At four the following morning, without the secessionists discovering they had been duped, the City of Angels slipped away and steamed away with more than 20,000 muskets, 5,000 carbines, 500 revolvers, 100,000 cartridges, and some other equipment. Lyons’ ruse worked to perfection (p. 166).
In many ways the peculiar institution exacerbated trickster mechanisms. Frederick Douglass was born into a world where two distinct moral systems conflicted, and he found himself forced to mediate between them. Douglass is to this day a black folk hero for his resistance to the institution of slavery.
If a contemporary trickster figure were to write an autobiography, he would likely write it in such a way that would benefit him the most. If, 10 years later, the social or political ethos had changed in the culture, it wouldn’t be past him to write another autobiography more suitable to the times and his financial prosperity.
Douglass wrote three autobiographies--one in 1845, one in 1855, and one in 1881. Typical of a trickster--all three autobiographies are somewhat contradictory in facts and events. For example, in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, he says, “my mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Baily, both colored, and quite dark. My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandfather (1994, p. 15). In his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass says, “In regard to the time of my birth, I cannot be as definite as I have been respecting the place. Nor, indeed, can I impart much knowledge concerning my parents” (1994, p. 140).Though not as contradictory as the preceding two quotes were, here is a quote from Douglass’ 1855 autobiography that delineates a necessity for trickster behavior:
"I have been so pinched with hunger that I have fought with the dog for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table. Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting girl when she went out to shake the table cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the cats" (1994, p. 30).
Voracious hunger is typically in a trickster’s repertoire, whether it is hunger for food, drugs, gambling, alcohol, or sex, or just for survival in an environment that taxes their mental and emotional reserves.
From the point of view of enslaved Africans, the need to promote trickster-like behaviors as a reflection of their values was greatly influenced by their view of such actions both as essential to their material and physical well-being, and as retaliatory actions against their masters. As to a trickster-like behavior that promoted emotional and spiritual well-being in a slave from the antebellum years, we can look at Nat Turner as an example. Oates (1975) claims that Nat was thought of by a white chronicler as “a negro of bad character.” A few other whites labeled him a witch doctor and accused him of “conjuring” the slaves, of employing tricks in order to frighten the superstitious and make himself popular with other slaves. Although whites scoffed at Nat’s revelations, his slave friends spoke of Preacher Nat with a reverence that fueled his prodigious pride and self-esteem. He told his friends that the spirit had endowed him with a special knowledge of the seasons, the rotation of the planets, and the operation of the tides. This gave him an eminence among the county’s slaves, many of whom thought he could control the weather, protect them from their masters, and heal their afflictions (p. 38). Under those circumstances, it’s not hard to understand how Nat Turner’s inner trickster was able to recruit so many of his fellow slaves that eventually let to the rebellion he is so infamous for.
It might well go without saying that politicians resort to trickster mechanisms for various reasons. It certainly wasn’t any different in the Civil War era. For example, as with many generals-turned-politicians (or vise versa), James H. Lane’s birthplace is controversial. Stephenson (1930) contends that some authorities believe it to be Boone County, Kentucky, others insist it was Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Lane, however, made conflicting statements. When it gave him political advantage, he was a native of Kentucky, but when it served his purpose better, he was a native of Indiana (p. 16).
Who are the major adversaries of most tricksters? Law enforcement officers usually. In many ways, law enforcement officers act like tricksters and are often described as tricksterish in behavior and attitude. It’s the: it-takes-one-to-know-one mentality. How many old time outlaws turned into sheriffs or marshals? And so it was with Allan Pinkerton. While Pinkerton’s right hand caught lawbreakers, his left hand broke the law.
A few other trickster mechanisms were invisible ink, playing dead, and hiding letters, maps, plans, etc., in specially made shoes with hollowed-out soles. Another hiding place was in dummy egg shells hidden among real eggs. Although this has only been a sketch of trickster mechanisms, a more comprehensive exploration is forthcoming. The research material required for such an endeavor is voluminous, but will hopefully be complete within the next two years.
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Cozzens, Peter. (2000). General John Pope: A life for the nation. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Douglass, F. (1994). Autobiographies: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass; An American slave, my bondage and my freedom; Life and times of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
Leslie, Edward E. (1996). The devil knows how to ride: The true story of William Clarke Quantrill and his confederate raiders. New York: Random House.
Longacre, Edward G. (1972). From union stars to top hat: A biography of the extraordinary general James Harrison Wilson. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books
Longacre, Edward G. (1995). Pickett, leader of the charge: A biography of general George E. Pickett, C.S.A. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing Company, Inc.
Mogelever, Jacob. (1960). Death to traitors: The story of general Lafayette C. Baker, Lincoln’s forgotten secret service chief. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc.
Oates, Stephen B. (1975). The fires of jubilee: Nat Turner’s fierce rebellion. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers
O’Neill, Charles. (1956). Wild train: The story of the Andrews raiders. New York: Random House.
Phillips, Christopher. (1990). Damned yankee: The life of general Nathaniel Lyon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Rayner, Richard. (2002). Drake’s fortune: The fabulous true story of the world’s greatest confidence artist. New York: Doubleday.
Rhoades, Jeffrey L. (1985). Scapegoat general: The story of major general Benjamin Huger, C.S.A. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books.
Stephenson, Wendell Homes. (1930). The political career of general James H. Lane. Publications of the Kansas state historical society. Topeka: Kansas State Printing Plant.
Werstein, Irving. (1962). Kearny the magnificent: The story of general Philip Kearny, 1815 - 1862. New York: The John Day Company.
Books by John E. Smethers, Ph.D