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"Mrs. Mary L. Christmas" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mrs. Mary L. Christmas
Tue, 30 Nov 1999 10:42:01 -0500
text/plain (129 lines)
Book Review

Andrews, Gregg. _Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a
Company Town_. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1999. Pp.
262 + xii. Photos, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, 6-1/4" x 9-1/4".
$29.95. ISBN 0-8262-1240-9.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at
discounted prices from the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Mary Leah Christmas

Copyright (c) 1999 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

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

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 Mark Twain Forum), 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 on 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.  Intriguing

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 way,
dozens of homes demolished, 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

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."