ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Clever Woman Outwits Merchants


Written and contributed by Ben Feld


Since history began, even before history began, it seems men have held that women are inferior to men mentally as well as physically.  Not many of us have been willing to risk incurring the wrath of the lord and master of the household, as the English author, Mary Wollstonecraft did by openly admitting, in 1792, that she was the writer of a book, openly challenging the male mind set regarding the inferiority of the female.  In the early 1800’s a trio of women was born; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony, who we cheered on when they became active in agitating for more equal rights for women, but they seemed to be stymied at every turn.  Finally in 1848, just when Watertown was in the throes of development, they did manage to get legislation passed which gave women the right to retain possession of property which they owned before marriage. 


But, in 1848, the right to vote was, for the ladies, still a long way off.  The men of what was to be referred to as the “mid-west” retained the philosophy which held, that “cradles are the ballot boxes for women -- in which they should deposit not votes, but voters”.  Granted, suffrage was awarded women in the Utah territory in 1870, but that was a political move, not an admission that women are as capable as men when it comes to making decisions outside the kitchen.


Finally, we women in Watertown were given permission to vote on school matters, that area being not too far removed from the hearth.  In the election of 1902, we women in Wisconsin were able to vote for state superintendent of schools, the county superintendent of schools, and on an amendment changing the term of office for school superintendents of schools.  But two years later we still were not judged capable of making a wise choice between Roosevelt and Parker.  We were still, for all practical purposes, inferior to the male population.


That is why it gave us a good deal of satisfaction to read in the Watertown Republican, that a woman had done a fine job of outsmarting not one, but several men in Watertown; and those men were not just any saloon-frequenting sots, but merchants and bankers.  And we smiled with delight when we noticed that great pains had been taken to avoid publishing the names of those incompetent men who were bested by a woman. 


You would have smiled, too, if you were a woman and, in the February 3, 1905, issue of The Watertown Gazette you had read an item about a well dressed woman , a stranger in town, who, some time previous, had entered a Watertown store and had asked to be shown some fur coats.  She seemed to take a liking to a garment worth $80, the report read, and after fitting it on, still hesitated about buying it.  She remained in the store for some time and finally said that she had a large check which she would have to offer in payment.  The check was produced and was found to call for $1000.  She told one of the salesmen that in order to be sure it was all right he might take it over to one of the banks and have it inspected. 


When he returned he informed her that it was OK and she placed it in her purse.  She still hesitated about parting with the $80 for the coat but finally agreed to do so, if the house would cash the check.  This was agreed to and she produced the check, took the coat, received $920 in cash and departed. The transaction took place on a Saturday evening.  And after banking hours.


On Monday following, the firm presented the check at the bank and it was pronounced worthless.  It was not the same check he had first shown, but was somewhat similar to it and drawn for the same amount.  She had produced the fraudulent check instead of the genuine one when she took the garment.  The woman had disappeared and now, some time later, had still not been found.


And why the smug, self-satisfied smiles on the faces of the women of Watertown?   Why not?  The men had messed up royally.  To begin with, why was there $920 in cash in the till after banking hours?  It was the policy of all good businesses to have only a minimal amount of cash on hand when it came time to lock the doors for the day.  As the editor of the Gazette stated, “Watertown merchants, though prosperous and rolling in wealth (his idea of humor) are not prepared to cash $100 checks after banking hours, especially when presented by strangers.“  Somebody in that store made a great mistake and one thing is for sure -- it was a man who did it; women were not in charge of that part of the business.


Another thing which is puzzling; How was it possible to ascertain so quickly, the genuineness of the check examined?  The only way to verify the soundness of the check was to use the mail system, or phone the issuing bank and give information orally.  No mention was made of that being done. 


Then there is one more aspect of the report which looks odd; the news item, itself, was a reprint from the Juneau Telephone, the newspaper published in nearby Juneau.  Which means, other communities learned about the swindle before the citizens of Watertown heard about it.  Sounds like a cover-up, doesn’t it?  Was it that the editors of the Watertown papers were ashamed of how their fellow-businessmen had been outfoxed by a mere woman?  Even editor Kelly of The Telephone appeared to be in on the cover-up, for he said, in his report, “(Since) one of the leading business houses in Watertown has been swindled . . . and that the firm in question is not openly admitting the clever trick; we refrain from giving the name”


It appears to us good-old-boyism is flourishing in the business world as well as in City Hall.


As a wise lady once said “Men must be taken as they are, not as they should be; they improve under our refining love”.


Added thought -- many men have a reputation for being virtuous when they are only discreet.