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


  1. What an honor to have such a talented and innovative ancestor! I loved reading about her. Thanks, Jeanmarie. :)

  2. Jeanmarie, you have such a fascinating family! I am amazed at all the wonderful stories you've collected. I hope you're keeping them in a form for posterity. They're too good to lose.

  3. Jeanmarie, this is just awesome. What a family history you have. It is unbelievable a woman was strong enough to push restrictions to the side and move on and make a difference like Bessie. She was an amazing woman and certainly someone to be proud of. Thanks for sharing her story with us today.

  4. What a wonderful story, Jeanmarie. It just proves once again what women can do and have done to make a difference in the world. I am wondering how old Bessie was when she died? What a tragedy that she had to die that way. You have a heritage to be proud of and to pass on to the younger generations in your family. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Okay, I did the math. Bessie was 78. And I know she must have had many things left to do when she died a POW. The world's loss, for sure.

  6. Jacquie,
    Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed reading about her! She was so busy with her jobs and writing, I wonder if she ever slept much. ;-)

  7. Caroline and Paisley,
    Thank you for your comments. :-)

    Yes, she was an over-achiever in her own way. She probably would have been a pioneer woman if she'd been born a couple generations earlier, or she may have been a public servant like she was all her life. If women had won the right to vote earlier she probably would have been more involved in government; but as a journalist and librarian she had a huge opportunity to speak her mind, and she did, and helped people. :-)

  8. Linda,
    Thank you so much for your kind words about Aunt Bess. Yes, I think she was around that age when she died. I noticed in the Manila Woman's Club membership roster online that her name disappeared from the membership list between 1941 and 1944. Also other names that disappeared from the Woman's Club list at that time, Mrs. Florence D. Cadwallader, Mrs. Josefa Llanes Escoda, Mrs. Paz P. Mendez, Mrs. Laura Shuman, and Mrs. Sofia R. de Veyra. This invites more research for me. Part of her legacy, I believe, is how much women can do through writing.
    Thanks again, Linda. :-)

  9. I know you must be so proud to have Bessie as an ancestor. How wonderful to have such a woman with her energy and ambition in your family history. Such a unique life and even the end of her life was under special circumstances as a POW far from home.
    A most interesting blog.

  10. Jeanmarie--I have no interesting ancestors. I take that back. I have some interesting ones, but none who have accomplished much of anything. So, I am quite impressed with Aunt Bess. What a woman she was. Thanks for telling us about her and showing us her photo. I absolutely love vintage photos.

  11. Wow, what an awesome history to have about your family! So cool. She sounds wonderful!

  12. fantastic story. Thanks for posting this.

  13. Hi Sarah,
    Thank you. Yes, I'm proud of my family. Aunt Bess is a great inspiration.

  14. Celia,
    Thanks so much. I'm happy to know that you like vintage photos and you enjoyed mine of Aunt Bess with her brothers.

    You'd be surprised what you can find out about your ancestors online! Researching mine has given me an education in history. :-)

  15. Hi Lauri,
    Thanks so much for stopping by.

    I think Aunt Bess was a woman warrior for humanitarian issues. I don't know what influenced her in her young life to be such a strong voice for the betterment of women and society in general. Whatever, she was a mover and a shaker. She helped to improve the lives of many people. :-)

  16. Hi A.D.,
    Thanks so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed reading about Aunt Bess. :-)
    Thank you for commenting!


  17. What an amazingly talented and inspiringwoman! Thanks for sharing this remarkable family history, Jeanmarie.

  18. What an amazingly talented and inspiringwoman! Thanks for sharing this remarkable family history, Jeanmarie.

  19. Tanya,
    Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about Bessie Agnes Dwyer. :-)

  20. This is an amazing post. How nice to know one's ancestry, you never know what you're going to discover. When you hear (or read) stories like this, it just makes you want to do something equally inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  21. EA,
    Thanks so much for commenting. The amazing thing to me about researching for this blog was that I found new information that I had never read before and didn't know abut Aunt Bess. So it was fascinating research for me.
    Thanks for coming by! :-)


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.