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Libbie Custer: Writer, Mythmaker, Professional Widow

Her books have never been out of print

Stone from Little Big Horn battlefield — Image by Frank Wintermeyer from Pixabay

Elizabeth Custer leaned against the window of the train rolling over the prairies east of Bismarck, Dakota Territory. She watched the dust and trailing herd of buffalo moving across the horizon.

She finally wept. She had been in shock. It was not just her husband who was killed, but brothers-in-law Boston Custer, Thomas Custer, and James Calhoun, and Autie’s (George’s) nephew, Henry Reed.

Several widows sat behind her in the railroad car, comforting each other, or lost in their own thoughts. Elizabeth had been the first widow informed of the massacre. She and an officer visited the other officers’ wives, suddenly widows, at Ft. Lincoln to break the news of the massacre at Little Big Horn.

Five Custer family members were dead. She was returning to her hometown of Monroe, Michigan. She didn’t know what she would do.

Elizabeth had been the grand hostess in the garrison at Ft. Lincoln. It was her duty and happy responsibility to host salons for family and officers, to provide piano music and sing-alongs, charades, and costume parties. She offered hospitality to visiting guests, welcome lights, and warmth in the long, cold Dakota winters. Her intelligence and charm were dedicated to boosting morale.

She also wrote articles about life on the plains, exotica for the East Coast magazines that published them. Since her marriage to Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer in 1864, she had accompanied him camp side to battles in the Civil War, and then across the southern states and plains territories on other cavalry assignments. She even had a uniform-like riding dress tailored for her rides out with the cavalry as they left camp. She lived as close to adventure as possible for a nineteenth-century woman.

Choosing to be a “professional widow”

Six months after the Battle of Little Big Horn, Frederick Whittaker rushed a book about George Armstrong’s heroic last stand into print. Whittaker was a pulp fiction writer who specialized in adventure tales. Elizabeth (Libbie) Custer had fully cooperated with him to get their version of history published quickly. President Grant had criticized Custer’s decision-making, and alternative views on goats and heroes were circulating.

Libbie had enjoyed the finer life in Washington, D.C., and in New York City, when she and her husband visited those cities. He had left her with gambling debts, a $30/month widow’s pension, and his reputation as a womanizer.

She was only 34, but the Civil War had left many war widows. England’s Queen Victoria proved a role model for permanent mourning, with the adoption of black widow’s weeds and a pledge to be married to memory.

We can’t know the thoughts and decision-making process, especially from a different culture and time. But widowhood offered women rare freedom. Wealthy widows without sons could control real estate and bank accounts. Libbie, a poor widow with grit and talent, could strive to make her own way.

She also could not make herself into a popular “professional widow” unless she had a heroic martyred husband. Libbie created the mythic role George Custer occupied for most of a century.

It is also clear that they enjoyed a fully sensual life, as captured in their correspondence, and that they professed great love for each other. Like many women, Libbie had been married to a man who was complicated, contradictory, and challenging. She was, perhaps, the same herself, masked by the sweet portrayal of the adoring widow.

Creations like the Wild West Show, which Buffalo Bill Cody toured for twenty years, helped solidify the Custer myth. Buffalo Bill adopted Custer’s blond goatee and long hair, and buckskin jacket, and included re-enactments in his show. Budweiser beer published a poster of Custer’s heroic last stand that was displayed in nearly every bar.

Libbie’s own long life and advocacy dissuaded the critics of Custer until after her death in 1933. By then, she had outlived the original players in the drama of a different era.

Fifty-seven years of independence in New York City

After 1876, Mrs. Custer moved to New York City and worked for the Women’s Decorative Arts Society for a few years. The Society provided needlework tasks for genteel women.

She joined the Cosmopolitan Club, founded for professional women with many famous members, writers, and women of substance in the membership. She wrote three memoirs of her experiences which have never been out of print and enjoyed the financial freedom the royalties provided. She was a tireless speaker and traveled the world speaking about Custer and other narratives and opinions. She corresponded and met with the Michigan Volunteers, veterans who had served with her husband in the Civil War, and championed them.

Libbie Custer built two houses in Bronxville, a suburb developed in part by William Lawrence, husband of her childhood friend Sarah Lawrence of Monroe. Sarah Lawrence College was established in her name. Libbie Custer also had an apartment in Manhattan, and frequently wintered in Florida.

She lived 57 years after 1876. Although Libbie Custer’s life work was creating a myth, she also served herself well. She was an engaging writer, a woman who enjoyed a private social life among the cultured women of New York City, a world traveler.

She chose, and created, a life of independence and social consequence.

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2 Responses

  1. Kathryn C. Custer
    | Reply

    With the last name of “Custer”, I’ve encountered lots of people wondering my relation to Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer. In recent years I learned “the facts”, that Libbie created a myth. I pretty much ignored any references. My ancestors are from Switzerland. When arriving in America, they changed Kuster to Custer. Someone asked me last week about my connection. When I need to give/spell my name for something, I say “C-U-S-T-E-R, like the General, no relation”.

  2. Susan Spivack
    | Reply

    Ahh, I love knowing all this.

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