The following review appeared 30 November 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mary Leah Christmas
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
That the review copy of Insane Sisters arrived at my post office box on Veterans' Day was appropriately symbolic: the day on which we honor those who served our country with parades, gatherings at monuments, and introspection. Nineteen-ninety-nine has brought tiny Ilasco, Missouri, a further reason to pause and reflect upon its history--newly reclaimed--of the battles fought over that ground on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Gregg Andrews, author of the award-winning City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer (University of Missouri Press, 1996; reviewed for the Forum on 11 December 1996), has returned to his Ilasco roots with this detailed account of a further struggle that took place upon that soil in the early decades of this century.
City of Dust recounted the ethnic tensions, conflicts, and uprisings in Ilasco, "an unincorporated industrial village three miles south of Hannibal, just across the Marion/Ralls County line. Ilasco, a largely Slavic immigrant community, lay on the perimeter of a large plant built by the Pennsylvania-based Atlas Portland Cement Company in 1901." Atlas Cement was not situated upon just any acreage. The company's operations impinged upon the caves of Mark Twain's youth. "For the Yankee capitalists who came to convert the land of Twain's childhood romps, adventures, and secret hideaways into cement kilns, quarries, and smokestacks, managing this transformation posed numerous challenges."
Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town exposes the seamier aspects of some of those challenges. It is the harrowing, real-life drama of two unconventional women who fought to defend themselves against the forces of "institutionalized masculinity." In doing so, these "designing women were about to confront designing men in a furious battle over the future of Atlas's 'foreign colony' in Tom Sawyer's backyard."
Mary Alice "Mollie" Sykes Heinbach and Euphemia B. "Feemy" Koller were not only sisters but "New Women" who dared to challenge the "barriers to women's full participation in American society at that time." The inevitable backlash resulted in protracted legal proceedings against both of them.
Feemy wryly observed, "[Mollie] is neither insane nor crazy . . . the term crazy or insane was never applied to her so far as I can learn until she became possessed of valuable real estate." Her statement calls to mind Willard Fiske's legal wranglings with Cornell University upon the death of Fiske's well-to-do wife, described by Mark Twain in his autobiography. As with Fiske, it was with the death of a spouse that Mollie's--and subsequently Feemy's--battle began. The timing was of course no coincidence. At issue was a prime twenty-six-acre tract left to Mollie by her late husband, land that Atlas Cement resolved to possess.
The irresistible magnet of opportunism pulled many into the fray. However:
To understand the dynamics of the property dispute whose outcome gave Atlas complete control of Ilasco and consolidated its position in Midwest markets, we must take into account not only the class-based, corporate interests of Atlas that propelled the case, but also the gender-based assumptions that shaped it. In many ways at the time, Mollie and Feemy threatened conventional gender roles. When they took on powerful male elites--political, corporate, and legal--they did so as 'eccentric' women whose aggressive public behavior particularly got under the skin of their enemies. In the end, this cost Mollie and Feemy much more than merely the Ilasco tract.The battle in the courts raged for seventeen years. It was "an extraordinarily bitter property dispute that pitted [the sisters] against county officials as well as one of the nations leading cement corporations and a host of its retainers in northeast Missouri." By the end of the process, the sisters were robbed of their identities. Each was conveniently declared insane by the courts; each was appointed a male guardian; and each would die "marginalized" and alone . . . but insane? Andrews raises troubling questions about the handling of their cases and even the use of mental institutions as "instruments of social control."
Woven throughout the narrative is Andrews's insightful analysis of the changing role of women during a time in which some authorities held that the education of women and encouragement of independent thought could lead to no good thing.
How the sisters initially prevailed against the "whole crowd of the gang," only for the gang to retaliate with such vengeance, makes for reading that has been likened to something by John Grisham. The sisters' plight was obviously played out well before the advent of Court TV, but the case nevertheless held a relatively wide audience in Missouri right on through its denouement. Nowadays, an even greater audience could be had if, as Andrews envisions, the sisters' story were turned into a movie--an intriguing possibility.
Meanwhile, attitudes have changed, history has rolled along in its courses, but what goes around still comes around. It was in the name of tourism that Ilasco was nearly paved off the map in the 1960s by the calculated extension of Highway 79 as part of the Great River Road project. Today, on the north side of downtown Hannibal, work is underway for a new Mississippi River bridge, requiring an extensive system of entry- and exit-ramps. Not far from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home an entire neighborhood has been wiped away, dozens of homes demolished, and the ground scraped bare, in preparation for rolling out an asphalt carpet to welcome an anticipated influx.
But south of town, where, too, heavy equipment once rumbled with devastating effect, a granite monument has appeared. According to clippings in the possession of this reviewer, the Ilasco Historical Marker was dedicated on 23 October 1999, "to the memory of all the residents of the Ilasco area and especially those in military service who gave their lives for their country."
The settlement of Ilasco has had its dignity and heritage restored. No longer hidden away, the names of those who served are displayed for all to see. Its history can also be read in the battle lines drawn in the dust long ago by Mollie and Feemy and the workers at the cement plant, who have made their triumphant returns from the past within the pages of Andrews's books. In the words of the Ilasco Historical Marker Committee: "Thank You For Coming Home To Ilasco."