This Day (Why the Long Face? Edition)

Published:May 9, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1568, Elinor White was christened in London; the daughter of the artist John White, she would become the mother of little Virginia Dare, the first baby born to blah blah blah. I know. We’ve all heard it before. Two hundred and six years later, selfish-in-the-sack William Byrd II married for a second time. (Roger that.) And in 1800, John Brown popped out in Connecticut.

Then, forty-four springs after that, Maria Isabella Boyd made her first grand entrance in Martinsburg. They became something of a habit for young Belle, these grand entrances. According to our entry, she was “a notoriously strong-willed child … [who] was rumored to have ridden her horse into a room full of dinner guests after her parents had told her she was too young to attend the party. ‘Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?’ she declared, and the historian Louis A. Sigaud has found it significant that Boyd’s ‘reckless assurance’ won over the guests, sparing her punishment.”

When Belle grew up and spied for the Confederacy, most folks agreed it was more than her “reckless assurance” that won people over. A remarkably compassionate historian called John Bakeless proposed otherwise, writing in 1970 that “Miss Belle wasn’t really an especially pretty girl. Surviving portraits show that she looked rather like one of those horses she rode so perfectly—a long face, a very long nose, and prominent teeth.” Bakeless’s p.o.v. must have been widespread, because Carl Sandburg was arguing with it all the way back in 1939, when he insisted, “This was mere propaganda, for Belle Boyd had moderate-sized teeth and could laugh pleasantly when she chose.”

Whatever the size of her teeth, the size of her legend is formidable, and the so-called Secesh Cleopatra had the good sense of inventing it herself in a two-volume memoir. Which isn’t to say she made it up exactly. She just provided her history with a … flourish.

IMAGE: Pretty? Not pretty? Do you even care?