Life

The Most Radical Advice Columnist of the 1920s

Few topics were off limits for “Princess Mysteria.”

An envelope addressed to Princess Mysteria.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Princess Mysteria (Vauleda Hill Strodder), a mentalist (or mind reader) who performed on the vaudeville circuit, wrote the column “Advice to the Wise and Otherwise” for the Chicago Defender from 1921–30. Hill, who represented herself as being of East Indian origin (but who was, according to records, born in Kansas in 1895), appears in historian Julie Golia’s new book, Newspaper Confessions: A History of Advice Columns in a Pre-Internet Age, as a fascinating figure within the early-20th-century boom in advice writing.

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The Defender, a prominent Black newspaper with nationwide distribution, hired Mysteria for the job of advice columnist after publishing her correspondence from the road. Because the performer specialized in answering audience questions about the intimate details of their lives—“love, lost money, and illness”—she seems to have made a natural segue into the role of advice-giver.

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Mysteria’s columns presented a stark contrast with other advice writing of the time, and not only because white advice columnists tended to toe a racist line when it came to matters of segregation and racial hierarchy, and rarely printed letters from Black correspondents. The columnist believed in women’s capacity for independence, and she addressed topics other columns wouldn’t touch, including premarital sex, rape, and abortion.

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Below, Golia walks us through a few of Mysteria’s most interesting letters and responses.

July 16, 1921

Princess Mysteria: I am asking you to help me decide what to do. Last December I was the victim of an accident and lost both of my legs. I was engaged to be married to a city employee and was so happy, because he was a perfect gentleman. Since my accident he has not changed in kindness, but he has become a drunkard which he says is caused from grieving over my loss. What shall I do? —Dinah, Washington, D.C.

Yours is a pathetic situation, and all of my sympathy is with you. Your intended husband is wrong to show a weakness for alcohol in order to display his sorrow for your loss. A drunkard will not make a husband for any woman and for you to go on with your sweetheart unless he decides between you and alcohol would be worse than death. “When wine is in wit is out,” and he will be changed by habitual drinking if he is not now. You have lost enough. Don’t lose all.

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Julie Golia: There’s so much going on in this little letter. That’s one of the things I love about Mysteria—her responses are very short, in comparison with a lot of other advice columns of the time. She packed a lot into her column, and a lot into each individual response.

What I think is fascinating about this one is that if this had been in a mainstream white newspaper, I think most columnists would have advised her to stay with the guy, and would have put the responsibility on her to fix him, maybe pointed out how unattractive of a marriage prospect she had become because she had lost both of her legs. They might have emphasized the fact that he was a perfect gentleman, that he had a good job.

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But Mysteria immediately goes to: This guy is not worth your time. He has an unfixable flaw. Tied up in that is the respectability politics that were really prevalent in the Defender at that time. There was a sense that one of the important things for Black people to be was “respectable” in a public way, and drunkenness was a No. 1 thing that would take away from your “respectability.” Mysteria was a big temperance advocate, for both women and men who wrote in.

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For Mysteria to tell Dinah to strike out on her own is a big thing—that’s a lot for someone in this situation. But it’s also a big vote of confidence in Dinah. It assumes that she would have that capacity for independence and self-support as a woman, which is something that was almost anathema to the white columnists of the time.

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Feb. 9, 1924

Dear Mysteria: I am in distress. I have been keeping company with a young man for a year. About a month ago he questioned me as to my past life. I told him I have always been a good girl, which I have, only when I was about 8 years old I was the victim of something I was not responsible for. I did not tell him this, as no one knows about it but my parents. If I should become his wife is there any way he could find this out? He has hinted marriage several times, but has not asked me outright. He is an exceptionally good boy and is very particular. I am so afraid he would later find this out. —Distress.

Your position is indeed a peculiar one, and your refusal to dig down into this hideous thing of the past, something that you were wholly irresponsible for, was only proper. You answered his question as he asked it. A child of 8 has hardly started to live. If he proposes marriage to you, you may have your father to tell him of this dreadful happening. It will be better for your father to tell him, than you. It will relieve your worry for him to know it, otherwise you will live with him always in fear of the skeleton in the closet.

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Golia: Mysteria’s response is multilevel-thoughtful, here. She answers both questions, and she does a little bit of sex ed. Like: Yes, when you marry this man, he may be able to figure out your history—she doesn’t say that explicitly, but it’s implied. So that’s one part of what she’s answering. And the other part of it is a total affirmation of the letter writer’s actions and a really direct recommendation of what she should do. Respectability is still built into this because she recommends that she have her father tell him, not the mother, but there’s also a complete reassurance that the person has done nothing wrong.

I read so many letters for this book, and I often put myself in the shoes of the person who wrote the letter and then read the advice. A lot of advice seemed like it would have been really frustrating to receive—like the advice given women in bad marriages who were so often told, Don’t leave him, suck it up. But with this one, it’s like, she got a really direct answer, a clear path forward, and a confirmation that she did nothing wrong. All this at a time when people weren’t comfortable talking publicly about sexual assault in any way!

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The letter also shows how the Defender approached advice differently. With this letter and the last letter, there’s a little bit of sensationalism to the stories: The one where the girl lost her legs is a hypertragedy; this one is a bit taboo in terms of mainstream discussion. There are almost no comparisons to these kinds of stories in white papers, where they wouldn’t have chosen to print it, because the papers were trying to market themselves as what they called “home papers,” or family papers. That’s not to say that they didn’t receive letters like this … but they didn’t publish them.

The Defender had sort of a dual face, where they emphasized respectability but they also didn’t mind publishing stuff like this that might draw more eyes. This was a little past the era of yellow journalism, and the Defender really takes up that mantle in a lot of ways, not just in terms of talking about sex but in covering crimes. … They were also covering stories about violence, and they were one of the major papers that was covering the story of lynching extensively, in a way that white papers certainly were not.

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March 15, 1924

Dear Princess: I am sure you have never had a letter like this before. I am a girl 22 years of age. I am not married and don’t have the least idea of getting married. I go to shows and dances with fellows, not because I love them but to keep them from thinking I am selfish. I have a girl friend whom I love very much and she is crazy about the boys. Please tell me what I can do to become interested in boys. They seem to treat me nice when I am in their company and I can’t understand why I feel toward them as I do. Most everyone says I will never marry, and it seems I won’t. —Worried.

All normal girls are interested in boys, and the fact that you are not classes you with those who are not normal. For your own peace and security, I advise you to try and cultivate the association of nice boys, as you may some day regret it if you do not. There is no supplement to nature, and as you say you are not naturally inclined to care for boys, I suggest that you force yourself to go about with them and maybe you can teach nature some new tricks. As to your girl friend, keep away from her until you have broken the feeling that you could love her better than you could love a boy.

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Golia: There are a series of letters to Mysteria that are about topics like homosexuality, and there’s another one about abortion, where her conclusions are not ones we would necessarily agree with. But I look at it this way: She chose to publish this letter and that in itself is a way of saying, Hey, other people who may feel like this: You are not alone. And that’s not nothing.

What’s funny here is that Mysteria sort of guesses from the letter that the letter writer might be in love with her friend. Look at it again: The writer just says that she loves her friend a lot and the friend likes boys. The response Mysteria gives about the “feeling that you could love her better than you could love a boy” is all intuition on her part!

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For its time, this was a really straightforward response, and fairly nonjudgmental. I think a lot of what she says is motivated of a desire for this person to try to salvage something of her life. My reading of this is that Mysteria is really sensitive to the threat of violence in her readers’ lives—conscious of the real danger that somebody who is gay might find themselves in, in the 1920s. It’s almost like she’s saying: Listen, I don’t make the rules. I don’t make the society we live in. I’m just trying to help you find a way to survive in it.

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March 22, 1924

Dear Princess Mysteria: I am coming to you for some of your wonderful advice. This is my first time. I am a married woman of 26 and my husband is 55. We have been married nine years. Here is my trouble: I married my husband under great promises he made to do great things for me, but I have worked hard ever since our marriage and whenever I speak of resting my husband gets angry. Princess, I have tried to be a good wife to him, but now I am tired and disgusted. What must I do? —Dissatisfied.

Promises are like fine china—they are easily broken—and since he has not kept his promises it is best to tell him so and then make a change. If you need a rest don’t ask him about it: slavery days are over and now it’s every soul for himself. Tell him you are going to take a vacation, and if he does not do differently than he has in the past, make your vacation a long one.

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Golia: Historians talk about the rise of the modern companionate marriage: the way that marriage—which was formerly a matter of economic exchange—was, in the 20th century, leached of some of that transactional aspect. The modern marriage was supposed to be based on all-consuming, complete love that was supposed to satisfy a person totally. In both white and Black papers, you see the fallout of this. … “Dissatisfied,” the pseudonym this letter writer uses, is probably the single most emblematic word to characterize the way marriage troubles get described in newspapers in the 1920s—and that goes for both men and women.

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This person, it looks like, got married at age 17 to a much older man. Here, there’s a strong theme of labor. Women often talk about how actual labor—either inside the home or both inside and outside, because some women were keeping the house and holding down a job at the same time—was exhausting them. Mysteria cuts right to the chase. The most important thing in her response was this direct reference to “slavery days.” And this idea of “every soul for himself”—an individualistic response that transcends gender.

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That is a complete and total departure from any other advice column I looked at that was published at the time, where unless somebody was describing real physical violence done against them, white columnists would counsel “staying together for the children”—an assumption of women’s inherent dependence. With Mysteria, it’s almost the opposite. … So often, Mysteria would say: You are better off getting a job yourself, and doing with the money what you will, than relying on your unreliable husband.

There’s a very clear recognition that Black women’s employment patterns in the 1920s were very different from white women’s; they were a major part of the labor force, and so this advice she gave wasn’t unreasonable. For Mysteria, individual rights are the most important, the most constant thing in this letter writer’s life. Not the husband, or the marriage, but herself.

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