Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
—William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697)
Between 1960-63, the ABC Television Network hosted an entertaining crime drama called The Naked City. The star of this show was actor Paul Burke. The show always ended with this narration: “There are over 4 million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.” There were at least that many stories in the old west, too, and never any shortages of human tragedy.
In 1830, just outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there lived a young man who was born into a financially comfortable family, whose father was locally influential and known as a man of honor. These traits were passed along to his son, whose name may have been Henry Vereau — but we cannot be sure. Henry fell in love with Anna Baldwin (if that was her name), the daughter of a New York clergyman visiting her sister in Baton Rouge.
Anna was not a beautiful woman, per se, but visually attractive and well proportioned. Henry and Anna met and fell in love, and in time he asked Anna to become his wife. She accepted his proposal, and they agreed to marry when Henry returned home following a business trip to Kentucky. He anticipated an absence of about two months.
While absent, Henry dutifully wrote to Anna to keep her informed of the progress of his business affairs and to reaffirm his devotion to her, of course. But then the letters stopped arriving — a fact that Anna found very disturbing. He may have been injured, or worse, killed — or possibly had changed his mind about marriage. There being no letters from her betrothed and carrying his child, Anna experienced much agony and disappointment. After another month, she began to listen to the propositions of the overseer of a nearby plantation, and with no word at all from Henry Vereau, Anna married this other man.
Sadly, her new husband proved to be a drunkard and abusive. But Anna’s story gets worse because Henry reappeared no more than two weeks after her marriage to the skunk. His business trip had been extended, but he continued writing to her with no account for why she did not receive any of his letters. Henry did not respond well to the news that she had married someone else — and he soon traveled to France.
Their child, whom Anna named Elsa Jane, born under dubious circumstances, is the main character of this story. It was not unusual for girls to marry at an early age in 1842. Elsa Jane married at the age of twelve years. She had two children by the time she was fifteen. Her husband, Mr. Forest, was a riverboat pilot, murdered in cold blood by one of his crew — a man whose name was Jamison.
Forest had left her penniless. It was an awful tragedy for a young girl, much less a young mother. With little choice in the matter, Elsa left her children with the Sisters of Charity in St. Louis, Missouri, and set off searching for work — and, amazingly enough, her husband’s killer. Jamison went to trial and was convicted of murder — but was later released on a technicality. We don’t know what the technicality was, of course, but it isn’t that important for this story. What is essential is that Elsa reasoned that to earn a good living and provide for her children, she would have to change her circumstances.
Of course, women back then had limited opportunities for employment outside the home, and Elsa’s case was complicated by the fact that this poorly-educated 16-year-old girl was determined to track down her husband’s murderer and give him a slice of justice. So, rather than taking a position as a domestic servant ironing other people’s linen, Elsa enlisted the assistance of a trusted male friend who agreed to keep her secret, find her clothes suitable for a young man, and teach her how to take on a more masculine persona.
With her hair cut short, Elsa Jane began calling herself “Charlie” and entered the world of men as their equal. She quickly passed herself off as a young man with a somewhat husky voice.
Elsa’s first job was as a cabin boy on a steamer along the St. Louis-New Orleans route. She was paid $35.00 per month ($1,290.08 today). Elsa visited her children every chance she could — along with the man who befriended her in her time of need. Not once, as she went about her business, did Elsa lose sight of her task: earn money to care for her two children and find the man who murdered her husband.
After working on the river for four years, in 1854, Charlie took a job as a railroad brakeman for higher wages. By this time, Charlie dropped all of her feminine traits with one exasperating “but.” Not long after joining the railroad, her superior, the train conductor, began to suspect her gender. She quickly packed her bags and boarded a steamer for Detroit. In her own words —
“I buried my sex in my heart and roughened the surface so I would not be discovered.”
There is but one source for information about Elsa Jane Forest Guerin — Mountain Charley or the Adventures of Mrs. E. J. Guerin, who was thirteen years in male attire: An Autobiography Comprising a Period of Thirteen Years Life in The States, California, and Pike’s Peak, Dubuque Publishing, 1861. The reader can download Guerin’s book here.
On average, Charlie changed jobs about every six months — more often whenever people began to eye her suspiciously. Even with that, she enjoyed the freedom she had as a male. She could come and go as she liked. In her own words —
“I could go where I chose, do many things which, while innocent in themselves, were debarred by propriety from association with the female sex. The change from cumbersome, unhealthy attire of woman to the more convenient, healthy habiliments of a man was in itself almost sufficient to compensate for its unwomanly character.”
Charlie returned to St. Louis to spend time with her children whenever possible. But playing the role of a man was Elsa’s cover, not her mission. Under her quiet demeanor was a hunter, always looking for a murderer. She was always hoping Jamison would show up at a street corner. One night, after five years of looking for him, he did. There was a moment in the initial meeting where Charlie could have quickly assassinated him, but she reasoned that such an act would be cowardly. Instead, she faced Jamison just outside a gambling hall in St. Louis. She called him out, he went for his gun, and she went for hers. His bullet hit her in the leg; she shot him in the arm, and he escaped.
The incident drew attention to herself, and she sought refuge with a sympathetic woman who listened to her story and kept Charlie hidden until she was well enough to travel. A company of men heading for the goldfields of Sacramento came through town, and Charlie jumped at the chance to leave the area and continue with her journey as a male adventurer, no one being the wiser and Charlie more determined than ever.
When Charlie reached Sacramento, she took on a job in a saloon — and supplemented her work by buying and selling mules. It was a lucrative venture, earning Charlie $2,500.00. Later, the young woman earned an additional $30,000 selling furs and leading supply wagons into Colorado.
In Denver, in the spring of 1860, after purchasing The Mountain Boy’s Saloon, Charlie became known as “Mountain Charley.” While operating the saloon, she also opened a bakery. Soon after, Charlie was riding horseback a few miles outside Denver when she happened to spot Jamison again. By this time, Mountain Charley had improved her marksmanship skills. Elsa Jane wrote —
“I emptied my revolver upon him as he lay and should have done the same with its mate had not two hunters at that moment come upon the ground and prevented any further consummation of my designs….”
This time her aim was true, but once again, Mr. Jamison proved himself a stout-hearted fellow, and although Elsa/Charley filled his sorry ass with hot lead, he did not die. Charlie learned that she needed a bigger caliber smoke wagon, and Mr. Jamison, who was never-the-less seriously wounded, traveled to New Orleans to recover. New Orleans was never a healthy place to live — not even now. Within a year, Yellow Fever killed the murdering rat, Mr. Jamison.
After returning to Denver, Charlie fell in love with her barkeeper, Mr. H. L. Guerin, who had been aware of Charlie’s past from the onset of their business relationship. Charlie finally revealed her true identity, and she and Mr. Guerin married and opened a boarding house in Denver, and engaged in a mining effort of unspecified interests.
According to the American Civil War forum, Elsa Jane Forest Guerin traveled to Iowa and joined the Union Army, enlisting as Private Charles Hatfield. She served in the army for two years under Colonel Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the 1st Iowa Regiment. Charlie served Curtis as a spy, was wounded in an undisclosed engagement, and eventually received a commission to first lieutenant. Ms. Guerin does not mention any involvement during the Civil War, so the claim that she served as an officer while impersonating Charles Hatfield cannot be substantiated. What makes this account unlikely is that she relocated her children to a boarding school in Georgia during the Civil War. Why would she do that if she served the army of Yankee aggression?
 William Congreve was a popular and successful English playwright of Restoration theatre, whose plays are still somewhat popular. Some of his lines are mistaken for Shakespeare, such as, ‘Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,’ ‘tis better to be left than never to have been loved,’ ‘You must not kiss and tell’ and ‘married in haste, we repent at leisure.’