By Don Wicks
PICAYUNE — “And so it was,” Elsie Farr wrote, “that what had been the land of the Choctaws became the land of Pearl Rivers.”
Eliza Jane Poitevent was born on March 11th, 1843 in the town of Gainesville, MS, (now the Stennis Space Center). She had two older brothers, Junius and John, who apparently gave her a hard time. One biography reported that they told her she was ugly, and no man would ever love her or marry her. She prayed every night for God to make her beautiful and every morning she would run to the mirror to see if her prayers were answered. Apparently she outgrew those fears and used her coquettish nature and petite size, instead of beauty, to negotiate life. At a little over four feet tall, with blue/green eyes and fiery auburn hair, bleached blond at times by the sun, she remained childlike, eliciting protectiveness from those who met her. With the sensitivity of a poet, the insight of a CEO and a tender heart she attacked life with a strong will and with resolve. Some say she was psychic.
At the tender age of nine, Eliza moved to Hobolochitto (now Picayune) to live with her Aunt Jane and Uncle Leonard Kimball. As the story goes, her mother was sickly and her aunt barren, but later information reveals that maybe Eliza’s gifted free spirited nature was the reason her mother gave her up. Regardless, it was an epiphany to Eliza. She took to her new life with glee and a whimsical freedom, that only a maverick heart could appreciate, and made friends with nature, her sole childhood companion. It was her sanctuary. To her it was magic.
Very little has been written about Eliza’s early life at the Hermitage. Having come from rich parentage into the home of a well to do planter, she certainly had plenty to read, as well as personal tutors, which included Moses Cook. The Hermitage was a store and post office, a stopping place for travelers passing through to buy provisions and those traveling to other places. It also acted as a hotel and restaurant, so Eliza had the influence of neighbors and strangers, poor and rich, adult and young. Her ambition was to become editor of a fashion or literary magazine.
It is not known when she began to construct verse, but it had to be shortly after her arrival at the Hermitage. She graduated from the Amite Female Seminary in Liberty Mississippi in 1859, when she was sixteen. A scrapbook, “The Moss Rose Album” exists in the Nicholson Papers found in the New Orleans Collection of the Williams Research Center, that has poems and other sentiments from her fellow students, some of them male, some quite romantic. In a Google search of book reprints, Biographical and Critical Sketches of Southland Writers by Ida Raymond (1870) depicts Eliza as “a staunch little rebel…where her many merry pranks soon won for her the name of ‘the wildest girl in school.’ She graduated at the age of ‘sweet sixteen,’ excelling in composition.”
From a group of letters found in the Tulane University Archives we learn that in her senior year at Liberty, she fell in love with a handsome 18 year old boy named Willie Harrison. The romance was fraught with problems and essentially ended when one of Willie’s letters was intercepted by the headmaster who notified her family. Poor Willie was not the proper prospect for their prized Eliza. During that period, she wrote poetry of love, her soldier boy, the plight of women and heartbreak.
Elsie Farr tells a story of a young girl living at the Hermitage who fell in love with a Civil War soldier that died in action. She mourned the boy’s death by sitting on the portico, playing sad tunes on her violin. The Negro slaves stopped work to listen, and the music played on, even after the girl had vanished. Elsie didn’t attribute the story to Eliza, who would have been only twelve, but Eliza Jane was six years older than reported, and if the story has any truth, it was probably our hero mourning her unrequited love.
The War for Southern Independence came two years after her graduation. The Gulf Coast and New Orleans were captured by the Yankees, cutting off trade and devastating the business of the Hermitage, which was only half built at that time. Slaves were freed, further affecting Eliza’s family, thrusting the estate into virtual poverty. Jayhawkers roamed the woods adding danger to an already precarious situation. Eliza and her family did survive the war, though not much is known about the difficulties they encountered, and the Hermitage was completed shortly after its end. When trade resumed, Eliza began to submit her poetry to newspapers and journals. Having one of her poems accepted by a Northeast journal along with a check for $10.00, gave her, “the happiest day in my life,” and launched her career as the poet Perl Rivers, which landed her the position of literary editor of the Daily Picayune. She later married the owner, 29 years her senior. A month after the wedding, Eliza was attacked by the ex-wife and nearly killed. Court cases ensued without adjudication and the trauma of that incident seemed to cast aspersions on her ability to write poetry. She became owner after his death. The papers business manager, George Nicholson helped to convince her to keep the bankrupt paper. During the three months she took to make the decision there appeared to be a romantic interest between the two, as noted in letters by Eliza to Uncle Nick (New Orleans Collection). After Nicholson’s wife died the two married and carried the newspaper to financial and editorial success.
Eliza published over 200 poems, most before the attack, including a 51 poem booklet titled Lyrics. She transformed a major newspaper from a dry, men’s tabloid, to a family journal, fostering women and children and humane treatment of animals. Her progressive style, some borrowed from more liberal northern newspapers, some her own inventions, made the paper the leading journal of the south. She took on efforts to end Reconstruction and political corruption. She was a sensitive child of nature and a stern manager, an enigmatic combination, not often seen in the world, then, or even today. While her poetry was sparse after the attack, she did write articles, especially about her children, and toward the end of her life, she resurrected her poetry with two epic poems, Hagar and Leah, about those scorned biblical women that received national acclaim.
Words alone cannot describe this iconic child/woman; her poetry does a better job, but her importance during and after that period, when brother fought brother, is undisputable. She is, we can proudly say, our Favorite Daughter. She is the lady that named us, and her story lives in those memories…and in our hearts.