Taken by the Fairies in Dubuque

Taken by the Fairies in Dubuque Illustration for "Goblin Market," Christina Rossetti, by Arthur Rackham, 1933

Taken by the Fairies in Dubuque Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1933 for “Goblin Market,” Christina Rossetti.

Since it is St Patrick’s Day, let me continue the theme of Irish fairies with a story from–Iowa. I’ve written before, as has Dr Beachcombing, on the paucity of fairies in America, the Banshee being the only high-profile creature of fairyland to reliably make the trek across the Atlantic. Following a similar logic, while there are many stories from the British Isles and Europe of wives and children taken by the fairies, there are practically none from the United States.  So this story of an alleged fairy abduction in the heartland came as a bit of a shock. Let’s start with the most widely-circulated version of the story:

STOLEN BY THE FAIRIES, A Marvelous Story That Comes from the Bounding West.

Dubuque, Ia., March 28. Andy Crowe is a well-known and prosperous farmer, living in Center township, Dubuque county. Some years ago he had a daughter, the sole remaining member of his family living at home. The girl, just approaching womanhood, was afflicted with a strange malady that baffled the skill of physicians. He finally concluded to take the girl to Father Bernard of the New Melleray monastery, who, on account of his well-known piety and self-abnegation, had established quite a reputation far and wide as a restorer to health of persons afflicted with physical or mental diseases. The good father prayed over the girl and prescribed medicines for her cure. On her way home from the monastery the girl told her father that all that was done for her by Father Bernard would not help her in the least and that she would go away in a year from that time to live with the fairies. Her father paid no attention to what the girl said; in fact, he forgot all about it until just a year from that night he woke up in the morning and found his daughter gone. A candle was burning in her room, and all her clothes were left behind except one calico dress. On reporting her disappearance and what the girl had told him, the neighbors became very suspicious, and charged the old man with making away with her. The neighboring creek was dragged for her body, and the woods and fields subjected to a close search, but no trace of the missing girl was found. In just a year from her disappearance she returned home and related a wonderful tale regarding her absence. She said she had been off with the fairies, with whom she had lived in the most splendid style. They had everything that heart could desire, and spent most of their time in traveling incog. over the country. She had traveled with them and rode in the cars, invisible to mortal eyes. They heard of the suspicions attaching to her father on account of her disappearance, and, at their command, she had returned home to clear up the old gentleman. A grand feast was held in honor of her return, which was attended by all the neighbors, to whom she related her wonderful experience. Two days later she came to Dubuque to visit her sister, who is married to a man named James Hayes, a teamster, residing on Thirteenth street. On the third day after coming to Dubuque she came down stairs and informed Mrs. Hayes that she had to go, that two of the fairies had come for her and that they were now upstairs waiting for her. Mrs. Hayes followed the girl upstairs, and there, to her amazement, she saw two queer-looking beings resembling men dressed in antiquated black costumes, and with them the girl left the house. Mrs. Hayes followed them to the door and watched them go up the street, when, after going half a block, all three suddenly disappeared in the air, since which nothing has ever been heard of the missing girl. Such is the story that has been repeatedly told by Andy Crowe, always with tearful eyes and impassioned voice, and most of his neighbors, many of whom are well posted in the legendary tales regarding the fairies in Ireland, implicitly believe the same. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 29 March 1886: p. 2

The same story above appeared first in the Des Moines [IA] Register for 26 March 1886: p. 3 under the misspelled headline:

“BEYOND RELIEF The Wonderful Story of a Dubuque Girl, Alleged to Have Been Abducted by Fairies.” Two days later the Des Moines paper let rip with the following:


At last Dubuque has got ahead of Des Moines. The aspiration of its later life has been realized. It has something that Des Moines has not. It has something that has been read about in song and story, and some thing nearly all people are supposed to dream about under the inspiration of hasheesh or the refined essence of the poppy. It is something that every city might have had, we suppose, but which no city in Iowa at least, has ever had but Dubuque. Therefore the city founded on the basis of galena [the lead mines] and the beneficence of Julian Dubuque is ahead of every other Iowa city in one thing. Therefore Dubuque is greater than any other Iowa town. Therefore hurrah for Dubuque!

It is fairies that Dubuque has got. It doesn’t know exactly what they are, but it has them. Like all other fairies, these fairies are very queer. A year ago they took Miss Kittie Crowe, the pretty daughter of Mr. Andy Crowe, made her invisible, and carried her away with them. She has just returned. She would not have returned at all, she said, only because of her mysterious disappearance the neighbors of her father, with the usual kindness of neighbors, began to account for her strange disappearance by saying he had murdered her. The fairies had heard of this, and so sent Miss Kittie back to save the old gentlemen from the present terrors of neighborhood gossip, and the possible terrors of Judge Lynch. Very fittingly a grand feast was spread in honor of Miss Kittie’s return. All the neighbors came in, just as they always do in the stories about fairies, to welcome Miss Kittie, and to hear her tell of the wonders of her year’s experience in Fairyland. According to her report they don’t do at all in Fairyland as we have thought. They don’t live in the cups of flowers, dance on the sunbeams, play hide and seek in the meshes of milady’s hair, nor sip the honey of the sunshine, nor dance in the coliseum of the lily by moonlight, nor do any of the elfish and gnomish things that all good fairies are popularly supposed to do. Instead, Miss Kittie says, that in her year with them they spent the time traveling incog. over the country, riding in railway cars, invisible to mortal eyes. If this is true, it be very disenchanting, and fairies are no better off than we poor mortals. But Miss Kittie doubtless told the truth. For Dubuque people always do, except when they are talking of Des Moines.

Three days Miss Kittie staid away from the fairies. On the third day she told her married sister that she had to go again, that the fairies could do without her no longer. The sister followed her upstairs, and according to a Dubuque dispatch, “saw two queer looking beings, resembling men, dressed in antiquated black, and with them the girl left the house.” She saw them go up the street. “After they had gone half a block all three suddenly disappeared in the air. Since which nothing has been heard of the missing girl.” There the story ends, so far as the outside world is given to know.

None of us can compete with these things. We hasten on behalf of Des Moines to throw up the sponge and say at once that we will not even try to compete with Dubuque in this respect. Who would have thought it of Dubuque—the practical, so worldly, and with not a poet to its name since McCreery left it.

Since it has gone at things in this way we warn all the cities competing with it for the Soldiers’ Home to look out for it. For if it has all the fairies with it, who can be against it? It has been invincible heretofore. What will it not be now?

The Des Moines [IA] Register 28 March 1886: p. 4

The sarcasm was heightened by the long-time struggle between Dubuque and Des Moines, Iowa’s capital, over the title of “largest Iowa city.”

The story did not have an unusually large syndication: my available databases show only a few papers: The Daily Commonwealth [Topeka KS]; The Kansas City [MO] Star; The Charleston [SC] News and Courier where it was said to be a Special to the New York Mail and Express and had the headline: “Munchausen Easily Beaten at His Own Game.” It appeared in the name-game significant Fayette [NC] Weekly Observer on 15 April 1886. All but one of the stories cluster in March of that year.

Where to start with the stated facts of the story? New Melleray Abbey is a Trappist/Cistercian community, which still exists. I’ve found two Father Bernards, one of whom was briefly Prior, but no mention of healing is made in the monastery’s history, which, frankly, is not unusual—singularity was not encouraged or documented. While the usual strict enclosure was kept, the Crows still could have visited the monastery.  One of the features of Cistercian life is hospitality to guests. (I was amused to read that one of the mayors of Dubuque went to the monastery for a “rest cure” when he was facing a court case.) It is not inconceivable that the father could have brought his daughter with her strange, physician-baffling malady to look for a miracle among the monks.

But is this improbable yarn of uncertain date just a squib to sell newspapers or a touch of the Blarney about people who never existed?   On that score, all I can do is quote the census reports: In 1860 Catherina Crow (rather than Crowe), age 5, born in Iowa in 1855, is living in Jefferson Township with Andrew Crow, 55, Jane Crow, 40, [both born in Ireland] Martin, 19, Mary Ann, 17, Jenny, 10, and John, 8.

In 1870 Kittie’s sister Mary Ann, age 27, is living in Dubuque, Ward 3, with James Hayes, teamster, and 4 children under the age of 8. Her parents are living in Center Township with three sons and “Katy” age 14.

By 1880 Andy/Andrew is 80 and described as a widower, but there is also another Jane, age 21, described as “wife.” Kittie/Katy/Catherina is nowhere to be found, having vanished from the record into marriage, death, a Fate Worse than Death, or, possibly, the world of fairy. Her brother Martin is noted as “idiotic” and “insane,” and by 1910 it seems likely that he was living in the St. Joseph Sanitarium, an insane asylum. In fact, Martin was something of a celebrity, briefly, in 1894, when this story was reported in many Midwestern papers.

Waits Eighteen Years for Examination.

Dubuque, Ia., July 20. For 18 years Martin Crow has lain in the county jail awaiting an examination by the insane commissioners on the charge of insanity. To every grand jury visiting the jail during this time he has pleaded for release in vain. The commissioners finally decided to investigate his case with the idea of releasing him. On examination he was found to be insane on one point, insisting his father was not dead, and the commissioners decided to remove him to the Independence asylum. Lincoln [NE] Daily News 20 July 1894: p. 3

Perhaps Martin believed his father was not dead, but in Fairyland.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on all the motifs of the Fae, but I can’t remember those taken ever being sent home for some altruistic reason such as saving Father from the gallows. The Good People were just not that good. While the notion of the “fairies” riding trains is a diverting one, the story is ambiguous about that “invisible to mortal eyes” stuff:  I picture Kittie and her friends avoiding the yard bulls as they hopped freight trains.  We might theorize that Kittie fell pregnant or ran away with the help of a sweetheart or plausible procuress. If the story unfolded as told, she must have had help: a single calico dress wouldn’t take you very far, unless, of course, she was pilfering the household allowance and the theft was kept quiet.

The word “fairy” was a term used for prostitutes. Did Kittie find herself leading a luxurious life as a soiled dove in a nearby town? Or had she eloped with that horror, a Protestant? Perhaps she still had access to local gossip–from clients or newspapers and returned to clear up the matter of her disappearance. She could not stay—life was good with the “fairies”—and she would not want to risk her profession or apostasy being exposed. The community was, as the articles note, full of citizens familiar with the Irish lore of fairies and abductions. Spinning such a story would be a face-saving gambit for everyone.

But what of the “two queer-looking beings resembling men dressed in antiquated black costumes”? 1880s Men in Black? Calling themselves fairies? And associated with an abduction, not to mention an Oliver Lerch-like disappearance in broad daylight! (Does “in the air” mean they actually went up in the air?) This is where the pleasant logic of the prostitution/Protestant story breaks down. (Oddly enough, I’ve written before of Iowa MIB.)

The whole thing is a bit baffling. False stories are quite common in the American papers of the past and, strangely, at least to my modern mind, they often include genuine individuals, sometimes people prominent in their communities. When I see stories of editors being sued or horsewhipped for printing libelous or defamatory pieces about local nibs, I wonder why the lawyers and horsewhips are never found in connection with a prominent citizen complaining about his inclusion in a story involving superstition, monsters, ghosts, or a disappearing daughter. There seems to be a missing subtext and it frustrates me.

Of course the obvious answer is that the young woman ran or was sent away to conceal a pregnancy and a story was made up to account for her disappearance. “Visiting an aunt in Chicago” would have been the more usual and credible excuse, but needs must when the Tuatha Dé Danann drives…Perhaps someone panicked.

It’s also possible that, given young Kittie’s prior mystery illness and her brother’s subsequent “insanity” that she was shipped off to an asylum for mental illness or “promiscuity”—sometimes the fate of erring daughters or wives. She might also have been at odds with a young stepmother. Or was this story simply code for “We wish to announce that Mr. Crow did not murder his daughter; she ran off and is now living a Life of Shame”? The inquiring minds of those charitably-disposed neighbors were all agog to know the truth, while the editor wanted to protect himself from lawsuits. Perhaps a fairy tale—an Irish fairy tale following the well-worn paths of the Gentry—was the perfect solution.


Can anyone trace Kittie beyond 1886?   chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

This story will appear in the upcoming, as-yet-unnamed sequel to The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales From the Past.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

For a St. Patrick’s Day look at Irish spirit controls, see this post, “So an Irishman Walks into a Medium…”

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