Custer National Cemetery, Garryowen, MT 59031
Mrs Noonan (1846 - October 30, 1878) was the laundress of Elizabeth Custer, General Custer's wife. “When she first came to our regiment she was married to a trooper, who, to all appearances, was good to her. My first knowledge of her was in Kentucky. She was our laundress, and when she brought the linen home, it was fluted and frilled so daintily that I considered her a treasure…. The woman was a Mexican, and like the rest of that hairy tribe she had so coarse and stubborn a beard that her chin had a blue look after shaving, in marked contrast to her swarthy face. She was tall, angular, awkward, and seemingly coarse, but I knew her to be tender hearted.”
“Old Nash,” as the laundress was called (she kept her first husband’s surname), had led a difficult life. She once even dressed as a man, driving ox teams over the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. Her own two children had died in Mexico, but she assisted many a Seventh Cavalry child into the world as she had learned midwifery from her mother and was a skilled practitioner of that art. Often would she say, “Are you comph?” in a labored accent to the young pregnant wives. The phrase became a favorite in the regiment.
She was married to, and deserted by, two Seventh Cavalry troopers before meeting her third and final husband, John Noonan.
Noonan had the best of the bargain, Elizabeth thought, “for notwithstanding his wife was no longer young, and was undeniably homely, she could cook well and spared him from eating with his company, and she was a good investment, for she earned so much by her industry.”
Her third husband was in the field on campaign when she took suddenly ill and died. She had implored those who cared for her in her final days to place her in a coffin and bury her at once. This they would not do for one so beloved by the regiment. When Old Nash passed on October 30, 1878, the ladies of the regiment carefully washed and prepared her for burial. They then made a most shocking discovery. Noted John Burkman: “We was flabbergasted.”
A dispatch from Bismarck, Dakota Territory, informed the world: “A singular development transpired at Fort Lincoln today. Mrs. Sergeant Noonan, who died last night, turns out to be a man…. There is no explanation of the unnatural union except that the supposed Mexican woman was worth $10,000 and was able to buy her husband’s silence. She has been with the 7th Cavalry nine years.”
Noonan didn’t inherit a fortune from his wife, for she gave all she had to the Bismarck Catholic Church. What Noonan did receive was unrelenting ridicule from his fellow troopers. “When Noonan come back from scout duty we told him about his wife dyin’ and all,” Burkman recalled. “He was a quiet man. He didn’t say much, but his face went white and kinda jerked. After that everywhere he went the regiment joshed him.”
Burkman was with the post carpenter on Noonan’s last day: “Noonan walked in. His face was gaunt and sorta set. The carpenter looked up. ‘Hello Noonan!’ he says. ‘Say, you and Mrs. Noonan never had no children, did you?’ We all started laughin’ and then we stopped sudden. Noonan was standin’, lookin’ at us … like an animal that’s been hurt. Then, afore we had sense to stop him he pulled out his gun and shot hisself dead, right thar at our feet.”
Noonan was buried in the post cemetery at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Bugler John Martini, who had carried Custer’s last message, sounded taps over the grave. Eventually reinterred at Custer Battlefield National Cemetery (Grave 573A), Noonan now fittingly rests upon the very field where so many of his comrades perished in battle. He had come, in his own way, to that same place.
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