"Minnesota Blizzard" was a Stormy Woman
Who is Minnesota’s most famous female? Is it Mariel LeSeur, esteemed writer and lecturer? How about Coya Knutson, our only female congress-person? Maybe actress Jessica Lange? Perhaps Hawley native Paulette Carlson, formerly country music’s New Artist of the Year?
If the mind goes blank, a century ago the answer would have been easy. In those days, Minnesota’s most famous woman was Maria Blaisdell, aka the Minnesota Blizzard.
Maria Blaisdell, formerly Maria J. Quiggle of Pelican Rapids, was a woman on a mission. Her husband, William Blaisdell, a Civil War veteran of the Fifth Minnesota Infantry, had been receiving a pension of $71 dollars a month, $59 over the princely base of $12 because of paralysis and "nervous problems" allegedly caused by military service. But when the government asked for citizens to volunteer information on suspected fraudulent claims, somebody in Pelican Rapids turned William Blaisdell in. The anonymous complaint charged Blaisdell had suffered a stroke that was in no way connected to the war, and that his mental problem was inherited insanity. The government promptly cut Blaisdell’s pension back to the nominal amount. Outraged Maria began a raucous campaign to set the matter right.
Maria Blaisdell began her campaign in St. Paul, working up the ladder from auditor, to adjutant general, to attorney general, to governor. Though unsuccessful, she gained a number of signatures to take to Washington, D.C. That claim was garnished by another: She also had served—as a nurse at Fort Snelling during the Sioux Uprising of 1862. So not only had the government unjustly reduced her husband’s monthly allotment, they had neglected to pay her, as well. Maria Blaisdell added interest monthly as she continued on her rounds.
A typical foray began with visits to Pelican Rapids neighbors and local officials. She had no money, which was to be expected—she said—since she had been impoverished by a cruel bureaucracy. She had given succor to soldiers. She was the daughter of a soldier, the sister of soldiers, the wife of a soldier. She wheedled and whined, harassed and harangued. Most would gladly give fifty cents, a dollar, at times even ten, to pass her on to the next subject. Traveling money in order, the ticket agent at the Pelican depot was next. If he would not donate a ticket, she would go up the chain of command until she got one. Folklore says she once even got robber baron James J. Hill, President of the Great Northern Railway, to ante up.
Ticket in hand, Maria Blaisdell would board the train in her traveling togs—gray military cut wool, bead epaulets, and a large badge that read: "Special Correspondent—Army Nurse 1862." In Washington, officials were concerned and polite—at first—but they soon wearied of her virulent onslaught. A clerk in the Pension Office noted "any decent man or woman here would rather encounter the smallpox than have a visit from her." Minnesota’s congressional delegation went into temporary retirement whenever she was in town. The Daily Journal described one such visit: "Maria Blaisdell...created a scene today at the office of the Secretary of the Treasury… she brushed by all attendants and the colored doorkeeper… and into the inner sanctum of the Secretary. Two or three gentlemen were talking to Mr. Gage, but Mrs. B. did not stand for formalities… For a number of days, prior to her call on the Secretary, Mrs. B. has been a caller at all hours on the Minnesota senators and representatives.... Today she was advised to leave the city, otherwise there might be trouble ahead of her."
Typically, Maria Blaisdell would receive donations sufficient to send her back to Pelican Rapids, and here the cycle would begin again. There was a brief flash of success, when she coerced members of Congress to introduce a special bill to provide for her relief, but the act was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland. The eastern press soon got wind of the goings on and dubbed Maria Blaisdell, "The Minnesota Blizzard." Newspapers in Chicago, New York, and Washington noted her comings and goings, typically as an "unusual atmospheric disturbance." In 1889, enroute to Washington, Maria Blaisdell was caught in the Johnstown Flood, the great disaster that drowned over two thousand. She lost her baggage in that deluge and added that to her list of grievances.
Back in Pelican Rapids, patience was wearing thin. In 1893, a group of citizens petitioned Otter Tail County District Court to have her declared insane. The case got front page coverage. The court, according to law, secured testimony from two physicians. In addition to her eternal pestiference, Maria Blaisdell was alleged to be carrying a pistol, to have threatened several persons, to have shot at one, to even have assaulted a noted attorney with her umbrella. She was remanded into custody and sent to the St. Peter facility for the criminally insane. But Maria Blaisdell hired an attorney, who filed a writ of habeas corpus. The case eventually went to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Maria successfully argued the testimony gathered by physicians was unsworn, and thus, hearsay and inadmissible. The court agreed and ordered her release. The legislature, noting that the decision "would turn loose seven hundred lunatics" hastily rewrote the law.
William Blaisdell, the wronged veteran and focus of all this controversy, died in the Fergus Fall State Hospital in November of 1895. Meanwhile, James W. Lowe, a prosperous farmer from Saskatchewan, had come south looking for a bride. He found one—albeit briefly—in Maria Blaisdell. Though the groom triumphantly passed out cigars to curious rubberneckers, he knew not what he had done. In 1912, Maria was granted a divorce on the grounds of "abandonment."
Maria Blaisdell died on November 24, 1918, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Amid the tumult of the Great War, her passing was hardly noted. Ten years later, when the Otter Tail County Historical Society was gathering information on Minnesota’s most widely known woman, a citizen protested: "If our county is to be known and judged by people such as that, I would rather it remained forever in obscurity."