Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Virago of Virgin Alley

Whilst researching Dog Jack, a bull terrier mascot of the Niagara Fire Company in Pittsburgh who subsequently served in the Union Army during the Civil War, I came across a fascinating historical vignette.

From the book Our firemen: the history of the Pittsburgh fire department, from the village period until the present time (1889), here is the story of one of the first documented women firefighters in the United States, Marina Betts, a volunteer with Pittsburgh's Niagara Company: 

Marina Betts was a virago, who lived on Shinbone alley, now Virgin alley, between the years 1820 and 1830. She professed a hearty contempt for public opinion, rather an unusual qualification for ladies who wish to go into society. But there was not much society in those days, and what there was gave Marina the cold shoulder. Although she was not on the cotillion lists of the time or invited to the church socials, she never missed a fire. She was about 5 feet 10 inches in height, and seemed to be of French- Indian extraction, having jet black hair, high cheek bones, and exceedingly dark complexion. She would take her place in the bucket line with alacrity, and besides devotion to the work in hand she manifested the ability of a recruiting sergeant. Woe to the dandy who passed, or stood as a mere spectator when, as Marina said; "Men folks should be working." He would get the contents of the next full bucket she caught as the alternative of getting into line, and many a man she pressed into the service by force of energy and a leather bucket well primed. Could Marina's spirit be materialized to-day, it would writhe at the sight of a "dude." She was more effective in securing workers than half a dozen captains, for those out of reach of her bucket would feel the weight of her tongue if she perceived any signs of skulking, and few cared to brave the ordeal of either. She afterwards settled down, married a farmer up the Allegheny river, and although she never had children of her own, reared several orphans, who to-day owe good positions in life and a virtuous and honest training to the heroine of the bucket brigade of over half a century ago, Marina Betts.
The term 'virago' is admittedly a loaded word, often used disparagingly to indicate a woman who violates social norms and thereby assaults tender sensibilities and expectations. While there's admittedly a whiff of that sort of judgmental attitude in the above piece, I prefer to think of this description of Marina in its positive connotation of a true female hero. And as one who has been known to 'writhe at the sight of a "dude"" myself upon occasion, I like Marina's style.

Until paid firefighting companies were organized in 1870, Pittsburgh's fire protection was on a volunteer basis. Every able-bodied male was legally required to lend a hand and every household was required to keep a leather fire bucket ready for emergencies. Fire engines were kept supplied by a bucket line of men (and Marina) who would pass water from the nearest source such as a well, stream, pond or even one of Pittsburgh's three rivers. Such organizations were crucial, because fires could devastate urban areas. Small wonder Marina writhed at the sight of shirkers of their firefighting duties.  Some years later, the Great Fire of 1845 destroyed downtown Pittsburgh, as shown in these paintings from the Carnegie Museum of Art by eyewitness artist William Coventry Wall.

William Coventry Wall, View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh, 1845

William Coventry Wall, Pittsburgh after the Fire from Boyd's Hill, 1845

William Coventry Wall, Pittsburgh after the Great Fire, 1845

Try as I might, I cannot find any other information about Marina. Shinbone Alley where she lived probably abutted Virgin Alley, which was certainly named as such preceding and during the time she lived there (it is today known as Oliver Avenue). Although I've not found it specifically on the maps I've looked at, Marina Betts would have lived quite near to the Niagara Fire Company station located at Penn Avenue near Fifteenth Street. Virgin Alley was close enough for a virago to dash down to join the bucket brigade.

How did Virgin Alley get its unusual name? In 1754 the French settlers of this area dedicated a fort on the Feast of the Assumption, naming it Fort Duquesne to honor the governor-general of New France, Ange Duquesne de Menneville. It was the custom in Catholic countries to select a patron saint for important sites, someone whose protection would be assured through public dedication and veneration. Accordingly this new fort and its associated chapel were dedicated "de 1'Assomption de la Ste. Vierge a la Belle Rivière," that is, to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin of the Beautiful River. A footpath used for funerals led from the chapel (original location unknown but somewhere near Fort Duquesne and what we know today as the Point) to a cemetery near the Native American burial ground in midtown. The path was called "L'Allee de la Vierge Marie" and the cemetery was also dedicated to "la Ste Vierge a la Belle Rivière,"  the Blessed Virgin of the Beautiful River. 

1957 painting by Charles Hargens portraying The Reverend Denys Baron celebrating the first Mass at Fort Duquesne on April 16, 1754.
When this area passed from French to British ownership, the established street names were altered accordingly. In the late 18th/early 19th century, the original Episcopal Trinity Church was built on lots bordering Virgin Alley, over the tumulus that had served as a Native American burial ground and cemetery for early French and English settlers and military personnel. That site encompassed some 4000 graves. Virgin Alley was renamed Oliver Avenue in 1904. Trinity Cathedral and its cemetery are active and well-maintained religious and historical sites to this day in downtown Pittsburgh.

The above quoted story is the sole primary source about Marina's life. It has been summarized, paraphrased and cited in any number of histories of firefighting, but nothing new has ever been added to her history. The book I found it in was written some 50 years after Marina supposedly volunteered with the Niagara Company. It can be considered an oral history, though a incomplete one -- we don't even know whether Betts was a married or maiden name.

The ultimate irony -- or insult, depending upon how you look at it -- is that the saga of firedog/Union soldier Dog Jack in the same source is longer and more detailed than the tale of Marina Betts.  Dog Jack has even had a movie made of his life (with much artistic license applied). The Virago of Virgin Alley surely deserves some kind of immortalization!

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