Jennie's House: Part of a Civil War secret

An Illinois town dedicates the home of a woman who went to war as a male soldier

September 2, 2011

Linda Paul

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(Linda Paul for WBEZ)
The historic home in Saunemin, Ill. where Jennie Hodgers - also known as soldier Albert DJ Cashier - once lived.

Of the 900 men who mustered into the 95th Illinois Infantry in 1862, only 153 were still in the regiment by the end of the Civil War. Albert DJ Cashier was one of them.

That’s historic because Albert was a woman.

He was born Jennie Hodgers in Clogher Head, Ireland on Christmas Day of 1843. A few years ago we brought you the story of Jennie Hodgers’ extraordinary life. You can hear the entire documentary here.

But there's an update on Jennie's story: Residents in her hometown of Saunemin, Ill. recently dedicated Jennie’s post-Civil War house as a historic structure.

A secret and a stigma

Saunemin, Ill. is a sleepy little town about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. 420 people live here and there are about seven businesses, including a tall grain elevator that looms over every rooftop.

"There’s the bank, there’s the gas station, the bar, there’s the insurance company, there’s a little carpet place, says Bob Bradford, Saunemin's mayor.

I’ve only just met the very affable Mayor Bob Bradford, but in no time flat, I’ve managed to get on his nerves.

See, the last time I was in town, a few years back, a couple of folks - a small number, really - weren’t so sure they wanted their town to celebrate the life of someone they considered a "cross-dresser." So I may have gotten off on the wrong foot by asking Mayor Bradford if that’s still the case today.

"Well, I get a little perturbed when you use the word cross-dresser," said Bradford.

Bradford said that anyone who uses that term just really doesn’t understand the story.

"And the story was, is, that Jennie Hodgers - Albert Cashier - was trying to make a living," he notes. "And back in those days, a woman could not make a good dollar by being a housekeeper or doing laundry and so forth. But a woman could get three squares a day, and could make a good salary by serving in the army. So I think that was the reason. I don’t think it had to do with cross-dressers."

The mayor wishes that he could talk to Jennie about the battles she went through and ask how she managed to survive.

"There’s one story that she was captured," he recalls. "And she subdued the guard and escaped. So there’s remarkable stories here. And it’s our history."

Preserving a home and its history

After the war, Albert DJ Cashier lived in a plain, one-room house in Saunemin and worked for over 40 years at various odd jobs, including stints as a sheep herder, village lamplighter and janitor for the Christian Church.

Last Saturday morning, members of Illinois’ 104th Volunteer Infantry gave a five-musket salute while about 70 other locals gathered to bless and dedicate Cashier's rebuilt home.

Town historian Alan Arnolts told the crowd about Cashier and the various incarnations of this house.

"She was working for State Senator Ira M. Lish, just one block down the street, when he was backing from the garage," he said. "She was working in the yard and he hit her and broke a leg."

Both sustained pain and insult. Cashier eventually died in the Watertown State Hospital for the Insane, where she was forced to wear a dress. It’s hard to know if she was sent there because her gender was eventually discovered -- or because she had dementia, which was often labeled insanity in those days.

"We thank everybody again for coming out and it’s a great turnout," said Arnolts. "And I hope everyone enjoys it."

Through the years the house served as a storage facility, a hatchery and once almost went up in smoke when the Saunemin Fire Department said they were gonna burn it down for a practice drill. But in recent years, things took a turn for the better.

"It’s very, very gratifying, absolutely, to know that the little town where she lived has finally come round to loving her," said Cheryl O'Donnell.

Cheryl O’Donnell is one of the folks who labored hardest through the years to preserve this old house. She remembers very well the years when some people in town thought that Cashier’s story was nothing to celebrate.

"A feeling that it was an embarrassment, you know? That this was a weird old guy, who was really a woman and sat around on his porch and did erratic things - and why would we want to memorialize someone like that?" she recalls.

Only a portion of the original house has survived. But the reconstruction’s the same size and shape, and portions of the siding, window frames and door frames are the original wood that Jennie touched and used.

And it’s built in almost the exact spot where it sat when Jennie lived there: a few blocks from where she’s buried at the Sunny Slope cemetery, and about a block from the driveway where she had the accident that eventually resulted in her gender being exposed.

A legacy lives on

Even though the home has been restored and dedicated, Mayor Bradford says the town hasn't had time to figure out plans for tourism - and the house is not yet open for general admission.

"We haven’t, to be honest, talked about what our next step is at this point in time," says Bradford.

But history buffs needn’t worry. Saunemin’s a friendly place, and if you want to get into Jennie’s house you can just call the village and leave a message on the answering machine.

"Or they can call me at home," says Bradford. "That’d be fine."

You heard that right. Just ring up the mayor, and he’ll find someone to show you around.