“Lawbreaking Ladies”: 50 Rebellious Women Who Earned a Place in History

The following is an excerpt on Mary Fields (“Stagecoach Mary”) from Lawbreaking Ladies: 50 Tales of Daring, Defiant, and Dangerous Women from History by Erika Owen:

(Simon and Schuster)

As opposed to many of the other women in this book, Mary Fields was never arrested for breaking any written laws, but I’ve included her in this group of lawbreaking ladies for her boundary-breaking actions and subversive behavior. She was known for her intimidating temper, and got herself into plenty of trouble; some incidents may have landed her in jail or worse if she had been alive today. But although she may seem like an antagonistic person, she was actually a trailblazing woman who became a beloved member of her community.

Mary was born into slavery, and little is known about her early life; enslaved people were often referred to by a number as opposed to a name in record-keeping books of the time, making it hard to track down a particular person’s birthdate or place of birth. So her story starts after the Civil War, after Mary was emancipated. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in the late 1870s, Mary became a housekeeper for the convent of the Ursuline Sisters in Toledo, Ohio, after working as a laundress and servant on riverboats traveling up the Mississippi River.

At the convent, Mary became close with the mother superior, Mother Amadeus Dunne. Some accounts believe Mother Amadeus was a member of the same family that had enslaved Mary, which may explain how Mary got to the convent, but there is no official confirmation that this was the case. One thing that would become clear in the future was that this friendship would be an important one for Mary, and would continue after Mother Amadeus left the convent to perform mission work in another state.

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At the convent, Mary completed some of the more labor-focused tasks, which she took on with ease, given her natural strength (she stood six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds). But Mary’s presence at the convent was not  always well-received. There are historical records sharing the nuns’  distaste for what they perceived to be her poor attitude, swearing and  unseemly temper. It might be fair to say that many of the sisters were  relieved when, in 1885, Mary was called to join Mother Amadeus at St. Peter’s Mission, a convent in Cascade,  Montana, that focused on mission work, after Mother Amadeus fell gravely ill.

Mary traveled to the convent and helped nurse Mother Amadeus back  to health. But Mary’s temper allegedly got in the way once again. During a verbal fight with a janitor at St. Peter’s Mission, she pulled her gun. She was not arrested for the act, but the incident got Mary kicked out of the convent.

She gained her nickname, Stagecoach Mary, after receiving a job as the mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, covering a route between St. Peter’s Mission and the town of Cascade. This gig put her on the chart as the second woman and the very first African American woman to get a job as a contracted route mail carrier. Mary’s job was a dangerous one, often filled with bandits and other shady characters looking for trouble and mail cars to rob. However, her stature, gun-toting confidence and tendency to wear men’s clothing helped her protect the stagecoach (donated by Mother Amadeus) carrying the convent’s mail. She kept this job for eight years.

Though her boisterous nature and quick-fire temper gained her enemies throughout Cascade, her work as a mail carrier made her many friends, and was fueled by her love for children and a steadfast ambition to get her job done. After her retirement, the community supported Mary by giving her free meals and chatting with her at the saloon. In return, she babysat for many families in the area. Her funeral was reportedly one of the largest the town had ever seen.

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Erika Owen is a Brooklyn-based travel writer, editor and content strategist. Her work has previously been published in Travel + Leisure, Departures and Vogue. You can also find her work online at GQ, Martha Stewart Living, Bustle, Rachael Ray Magazine and more.