Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Bessie Agnes Dwyer of Texas
by Jeanmarie Hamilton
My grandmother loved the theater, whether it was attending plays or acting in them. Her aunt Bessie Dwyer also loved the theater, and that's probably one of the big reasons they got along so well. My grandmother always said Aunt Bess was her favorite aunt. As children my siblings and I would listen to my grandmother's family stories and hear great things about Aunt Bess. She became one of our heroines early on. At left is a photo of Aunt Bess and her brothers, my great grandfather Joseph on the left, her right. I don't know when the photo was taken, but I'm guessing she was in her twenties at the time.
Aunt Bess was born in 1866 at her parents' home, Bonita Ranch, near Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, Judge Thomas A. Dwyer insisted his wife, Annie Croker Dwyer, have their children in Texas, but otherwise she could travel the world as she wanted to do. When Aunt Bess was a child, she traveled with her mother and brother Joseph at times, studied with a family governess, but must have taken after her father quite a bit. The youngest of six children, she was always taking part in plays and portrayed many different characters. She also took after her father's ability for literary and historical accomplishments.
Her father died when she was sixteen. Her education didn't include practical ways she could support herself. The Civil War took the family's savings and property. She ignored society's prejudice against women working outside the home, and she took a paying job in the post office in San Antonio. She worked there for six years, and while holding that job she found a little time to write poems and sketches and have them published. She also worked at G. W. Baldwin and Company, the largest book store and stationary provider in West Texas.
Exhausted from trying to do too much, she resigned her job at the post office and in 1886 she visited her married sister at a frontier army post in the Arizona Territory and later in New Mexico. Three years later she returned to Texas and became a journalist for the Galveston "News" where she kept her readers interested with her descriptions of life in the army in the territories and Old Mexico. Her most memorable stories, "Mr. Moore of Albuquerque" and "A Daughter of Eve," were published in the Galveston "News."
While her home was in San Antonio, Texas, she graduated from a San Antonio business college and, in 1891, filled a position on the staff of the "National Economist," Washington, DC, as a congressional correspondent. She also wrote for well known southern journals. Governor James Hogg made her a commissioner to the Chicago Exposition of 1893. In that same year, she became the first female Assistant Librarian for the Library of Congress. She remained in that position until 1903, meanwhile graduating in June of 1902 from a law course of 3 years. She was the first Texas woman to receive the Bachelor of Laws degree.
She continued to write, in particular, articles for the National Farmer's Alliance periodicals, discussing a number of economic issues that influenced agriculture. Following is a link to one such article:
She traveled to the Philippines, around 1909 - 1911, to establish libraries there, and worked as the Chief of Library Circulation, even while remaining active in politics. She served as a delegate to the 1920 Democratic National Convention representing the Philippines. She loved the people of the Philippines and established her home there. She became a member of the National Federation of Women's Clubs of the Philippines, and is listed as a member from 1929 to around 1944.
My great grandfather, Joseph L. Dwyer, received a letter from the US government around the end of World War II, letting him know that she had died in Santo Tomas Internment Camp, a prisoner of war.
I'm in awe of everything she accomplished in her life. I only have one photo of her, taken with her two brothers when she was probably in her twenties. There is another photo of her in a book for sale on Amazon, titled American Women of Note. She was a strong woman, with strong opinions, and a wonderful friend to my grandmother and the people she worked with during her industrious life.
Thanks to the following for additional information about Bessie Agnes Dwyer:
Melissa G. Wiedenfeld, "Elizabeth Agnes Dwyer," Handbook of Texas Online;
and "American Women of Note," New York: Mast, Crowell and Kirkpatrick, 1897