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How to Steal a Train: John Allen Bigelow

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                John  Allen Bigelow was a man of many talents but taking life too seriously wasn’t one of them. Come along with us as we sneak into the Union Army to fight in the Civil War twice, form a love connection with a good friend’s sister, steal a train, brand ourselves as a one-armed insurance salesman and give future historians headaches with our inability to walk in a straight line with one of Birmingham’s most colorful characters. 

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Remember in George Taylor’s episode we talked briefly about the census taker who refused to do his job and walk in a straight line, thus causing us to not know where the Taylors actually lived? Today is all about that guy, John Allen Bigelow, who, before he was a census taker, snuck into the army twice, stole a train, dabbled in art and advertised himself as a one-armed insurance salesman. It takes some mental strength to make it through war and to re-adjust to civilian life as an amputee while still maintaining a sense of humor.

                This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.

                John Allen Bigelow was born on September 16, 1839 in Franklin, Michigan to Jotham and Esther Susan Montague Bigelow. We have few details about his life as a child- save for he entered the workforce at the age of 13 and worked in carpentry. But an accident in a wood mill at 17 left his left arm severely injured and he had to leave the trade.

                While this was a major set back for John at the time, it was actually a fairly fortunate occurrence in retrospect.

                But this left John Allen Bigelow looking for work in 1856. The backbone of the American economy at the time was agriculture and in the previous decade 58.2% of working Americans were employed in agriculture with another 30% in manufacturing and 1% in mining. And this is before the Industrial Revolution when we got a lot of machinery that makes that kind of labor less back breaking. There were no tractors or combines on farms- planting, weeding, harvesting and processing the harvest all had to be done by hand or with animal power. John’s previous employment, carpentry, was done with hand tools and while a mill’s saw blade spun using water power, there were no safety procedures in place to protect the workers moving the wood that was being sawed. OSHA didn’t exist yet. In fact, very few professions were open to a man who left school in his early teens and who wasn’t completely able bodied.

                In 1990, after decades of tireless work by disability advocates, the Americans with Disabilities Act became federal law. The act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government’ programs and services as well as provides easier physical access to public buildings. In  2023, many take these accommodations for granted but John Allen Bigelow spent most of his life as a “cripple” in a world in which widespread accommodations didn’t exist for the disabled and discrimination could keep him out of the work that was available to him.

                Like a lot of people who have to pivot career wise-John Allen Bigelow went back to school and he completed a year-long program in order to become a teacher. In the 1850s, when John Allen Bigelow was training to become a teacher, children were not required to attend school.

                But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a demand for teachers or for schooling but it meant that most children attended school seasonally, when they weren’t needed to help with family farms or businesses. It wasn’t until 1871 that a compulsory schooling law in Michigan required that children between age eight and 14 were required to attend school for at least 12 weeks a year, six of them consecutive.

                While teaching was becoming more professionalized, very little was standardized. A teacher’s necessary credentials varied from school to school and district to district. In some rural schools, they had to hire whoever they could get even if it meant a teenager with an equivalent of an eight grade education. Throughout the 1840s, single women increasingly took jobs as teachers, as one of the few legal jobs open to single women. Women were considered nurturing by nature and they could be paid about 1/3 less than their male counterparts (and fired as soon as they married).

                So what did the educational landscape in the area look like in the 1850s, using Birmingham as an example? In 1856, the village built it’s first purpose built school, the Red Schoolhouse, which was located where the museum’s Allen House currently is. Before then, students learned in log cabins on the properties of Ziba Swan and Elijah Willitts. The Red Schoolhouse only served the lower grades, though. In 1860, a student who wanted a high school education had to pay tuition to attend Birmingham’s Academy and it wasn’t until 1869 that Hill School was built with public funds and provided Birmingham students and students from the surrounding area with a public high school education.

                But back to John Allen Bigelow, John taught in Lapeer County until 1860, when he quit to begin working as a clerk in Orrin Poppleton’s store in Birmingham. Poppleton’s store was one of the oldest in the village, established in 1840 and in the 1860s was located at the corner of what is today N. Old Woodward and Hamilton. The store specialized in dry goods but also carried groceries, crockery, boots, shoes, caps and hats. Since he had been in business for so long, Poppleton could get a discount on the goods he sold by buying them with cash and could thus sell those goods for cheaper than his competitors.

                So, you wanna be a clerk in the mid 1800s? A retail clerk at this time needed to know how to write and to write neatly, as they wrote out receipts by hand as well as handling all running accounts, orders, balance sheets, etc. No computers meant that everything had to be done by hand. No calculators for doing math either, so a clerk had to be able to do math quickly in their head when ringing up sales or doing the books. At this time, most clerks were men and the job was coveted, clerking often paid better than manual labor jobs and they had the added benefit of allowing for upward mobility-most clerks ended up opening up their own stores.

                And that’s just what John Allen Bigelow ended up doing in the spring of 1861, he opened his own mercantile store in Franklin, a small village only about 6 miles southwest of  Birmingham. But the simple life of a store owner in a small village wasn’t about to be his destiny just yet, because a little thing called the Civil War broke out in April of 1861.

                Let’s take a quick pause for a moment to be very, very blunt about the Civil War and what caused it. Slavery. If anyone tries to tell you that the war was about “states rights” the thing that you need to respond with is “states rights to do what?”

                Here’s the thing, we know exactly why the states of South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas seceded from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln- because we have the written documents from their governments talking about why they seceded.

                It all starts in South Carolina in 1861. In the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union the only grievance that is brought up is the hostility of northern non-slaveholding states to return freedom seekers as stipulated in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

                Check out our previous episodes on Elijah Fish and George Taylor for a look at the Fugitive slave act and how it changed how Abolitionists and Freedom seekers worked to bring about an end to slavery.

                In the text of Georgia’s secession declaration, the only reason given is that Lincoln, the candidate of the “anti-slavery republican party” was elected.

                We could go on with the individual states’ declarations, but let’s turn to the speech that has gone down in history as “the Cornerstone Speech” that the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stevens, gave on March 21, 1861. If anyone were to know exactly what the cause of the war was, I think we can probably all agree that it was him.

                After a very long and needlessly wordy section about how some of the United States’ founders found slavery to be a great but necessary evil, he goes on to say

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics.”

There you have it, slavery and racism. Alex wasted a whole bunch of words when it all boils down to three. Dude really needed an editor. And let’s be clear, slavery is a barbaric system built on violence that is morally and ethically indefensible. But some people have continued to try to skew the truth.  The “Lost Cause” narrative, that the South was merely fighting to maintain a genteel and noble way of life, is a lie that only started gaining traction in the 1920s. Coincidentally, this was happening  during a period when there were thousands of Black WWI veterans returning home and pushing back against Jim Crow Laws that sought to hold Black folks to a second-class status in the United States. It’s also when a lot of those statues celebrating the confederacy started popping up all over the South and the KKK was making inroads all over the country-including the north where Black folks were making socio-economic advances. “Gone with the Wind” and other media in a similar vein is a nostalgic yearning for a world that never existed.

Looking at historical systems and events squarely in the eye and calling it what it is can make some people extremely uncomfortable, especially when the biases and prejudices of the past still exist across American culture. This is why many try to hand-wave away the why of the Civil War behind the euphemism of “states’ rights” and would rather discuss in detail who was standing where on 11:01 am during the second day of the battle of Antietam rather than why Antietam happened in the first place. I not so fondly remember learning how to march in formation during my elementary school lessons on the Civil War but I was never asked to stop and consider the four million humans (or about 13% of the total US population of the time) that were enslaved when the war started and what their lives were like or about the over 600,000 soldiers who died in the course of the war.


And with that out of the way, it’s time to sneak into the army! The same arm injury that ended John Allen Bigelow’s carpentry career was the same injury that made the Union army initially turn him away. But John was nothing if not persistent. He convinced an officer to swear him in for limited clerical duty.

You know what the best thing is about being a clerk for the army? You can put yourself down in the rolls for active service and that’s just what John did when he put himself down in the rolls as a bugler of Company C, First Michigan Cavalry in August of 1861.

Did John have any musical experience? If he did we have no records of it. Buglers memorized about 50 bugle calls that informed soldiers in camp what time it was or when it was time for things like meals and drills, and they also relayed messages on the battlefield. Civil War regiments also included drummers and fife players but commanders quickly learned that bugles were the most effective way to carry messages across large and noisy battlefields when different regiments were separated.

Buglers also carried weapons, as well as helping with other battlefield necessities, like ambulance work. Being a musician did not prevent John from seeing the horrors of battle.

On May 23, 1862 John was captured at Winchester, Virginia and sent to the notorious Libby Prison. Originally a three story tobacco warehouse in Richmond, Virginia, it was used to house Union prisoners of war and quickly grew a reputation of being intensely crowded with limited provisions for the prisoners and diseases running rampant.

But a man who snuck his way into the army was not about to stay in prison. Here, our sources diverge. Some say that he and some fellow soldiers escaped after being held 10 days (we have many tales of soldiers and groups of soldiers escaping Libby, so its very plausible) and some say that he was allowed to leave as long as he promised not to rejoin the Union Army (and, if so, obviously John had his fingers crossed behind his back during this promise).

Either way, John was out of prison and, with 72 of his closest friends now had to make their way back North. At Martinsburg, WV, they encountered a train that they believed to be a Confederate train so they did the only sensible thing in that situation: hijack it and run it to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

West Virginia had separated from Virginia in 1861 and was admitted to the Union shortly thereafter. As we’ll see, the war changed American life and culture but it also left on mark on geography as well.

The train ended up being a Union train though, and John was put to work strengthening some of the infrastructure protecting Washington DC before being honorably discharged.

The War thought that it was done with John but John Allen Bigelow was not done with it. He changed his name to John Allen (we never said that he was super creative, ok?) and joined the Michigan 5th Cavalry on August 13, 1862. This put him under the command of one George Custer (yeah, that Custer) who was actually considered competent at his job during the Civil War (he became far less competent at his job after the Civil War during the western Indian wars).

It was here in the 5th Cavalry that John saw a lot of action and also befriended Richard Whitehead, from Pontiac Michigan. At our museum, we have copies of some of the letters that Richard and his brother Alvin wrote to their mother and six siblings during the war. In them Richard talks about the action he took part in at Gettysburg, capturing Confederate supplies (included the paper he wrote the letters on), about how much he loved the gloves his sisters had sent him and how he was offered a dollar for them but refused to sell them, and how he bought a horse that he was going to bring home and teach his youngest sister how to jump ditches and fences on, etc.

Richard mentions John Allen by name a few times, so they must have been fairly close. At some point in 1863 or early 1864, Richard had been working on a letter to his sister, Isabel, and in the middle of it was called away to fight in a skirmish. John, fearing that his friend might not return to finish and send the letter, put his own name to it and sent it off to Isabel. Richard survived and Isabel, intrigued, wrote back to John.

Thus began John’s correspondence with the Whitehead family and, in particular, with Richard’s sister Isabel, who he refers to in his diary as “B” or “Belle”. In May 1864 Richard wrote to his family “I expect John has been giving you an account of all our doings since we left”.

The wartime story of John Allen Bigelow gets more fleshed out in 1864, because we have a diary kept by him during that year. It’s a daily pocket remembrancer, made for a clerk to keep his accounts in. Here we have a record of the number of times he had to bivouac, or sleep on the ground, what the weather was like, how often they drilled, etc. We even get some art. John took the advice of “drawing what you see” literally and we unfortunately get some pictures of dead horses he witnessed. But we also get a peek into John and Isabel’s courtship.

On April 29, 1864 he wrote “Received a letter from B tonight. Twas better than money and such good thoughts as it is just running in my brain. Hope I can thank the writer some day as I ought.” On July 20, during a particularly hot and dusty spell he wrote “No letters. B has forgotten me I guess.” The next day he got a letter from her though and felt much better. On August 2 he writes about a photo B had sent him “As I gase upon Belle’s photograph, it seems to say be firm and kind to all men. Kind heaven protect her”.

That spring Isabel and the Whitehead family, along with John, had suffered a blow when Richard was killed at the battle of Haw’s Shop in Virginia. Like all soldiers, death was on John’s mind and in the back of his diary he composed his will, in which he left half of everything he had to his mom and dad and the other half to Ms Isabel Whitehead of Pontiac, Michigan. At this point the two hadn’t met in person yet.

And that will almost became necessary on September 19, 1864. This diary entry is in a different hand, possibly written by a friend or someone at the hospital, and reads “Moved towards Winchester about 3 am. Hard fighting all day, whipped the enemy and drove them beyond Winchester. Was wounded in the left arm which required to be amputated.”

Lest you think John was in any way morose about the situation, the entry the next day reads “In hospital at Winchester. Friends plenty”. It might have helped that it was the same arm that he had injured all those years ago in the mill at 17.  In the entirety of his service, he had sustained upwards of 5 injuries over 85 battles and skirmishes, including getting shot in the head (which apparently was so inconsequential that he never really mentioned it).

Recovery was hard, several times the wound had to be re-cauterized because it wouldn’t stop bleeding. But life after the war for a crippled vet was just as hard. On average, 1 out of every 4 men who served in the Civil War didn’t make it back home. Sometimes a single battle knocked out whole regiments of men from the same town. And of those who survived, about 1 out of 11 had an amputation. If you recall the beginning of the episode, the majority of men prior to the War had jobs in Agricultural labor and those jobs required able-bodied workers.

It can be a challenge today for returning service vets with disabilities to reintegrate into Civilian life, but in 1865, when the Civil War ended, there were no protections or safety nets in place for veterans like John. But John was, in many ways, fortunate. He had worked as a clerk and teacher prior to the War and could thus return to either profession.

He could finally meet Isabel, the object of his affections, in person as well. In the spring following his return Isabel and John married. In the years following, they set up shop in Birmingham where John became postmaster, a notary public, ran his own general store and sold insurance as well as being a member of Birmingham’s Masonic Lodge. He became quite a memorable character in the growing village.

One of Isabel’s younger brothers, Almeron, joined the couple in Birmingham and through clerking at his brother-in-law’s store met his future bff and business partner, George Mitchell. Their partnership changed the business landscape in the village forever, but that’s a story for another day.

John Allen Bigelow wrote quite a bit about his life, whether it was articles about the action he experienced at the battle of Gettysburg or humorous stories about hunting squirrels. Issues of the Birmingham Eccentric newspaper advertise him as the “one armed insurance salesman”.

Many Birminghamsters recalled his presence in town, he appears to be on friendly terms with everyone and always had a joke or funny story. It’s this friendliness that probably led to him being unable to walk in a straight line while conducting the census in 1890 leaving us confused as to who lived where. After all, what’s the point of getting paid to walk around the city if you can’t go and visit your friends whenever you like? While the life of John Allen Bigelow is a boon to us here at the museum because we do have so much documentation about him, his life and his business, he does give us a few headaches too.

And here we should probably talk about the monument to the soldiers and the war that Bigelow had a hand in getting for the village. In 1904, the US government was offloading some old military equipment and Bigelow organized a fundraiser to purchase an old cannon from Fort Morgan, Alabama that had been used during the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. The cannon was mounted on a specially designed concrete base that was inscribed “from Fort Morgan” and placed in front of Hill School, where generations of kids played on it. During WWII, it was donated in a scrap metal drive and melted down and the base tossed into a dump, where it was discovered years later and moved to the site of the Birmingham Museum. You can now come and visit it, it’s right next to our driveway.

John Allen Bigelow died in 1925 at the age of 95, followed just a few months later by his beloved “B”. They were survived by three children; Mortimer, Bertha and Elizabeth. A romance that started by letter ended 61 years later when communication was largely taking place by telephone. A man who fought with muskets and sabers during the Civil War lived long enough to see the new horrors unleashed on battlefields during WWI and probably read about the two military innovations that would soon completely replaced the Cavalry as he knew it-planes and tanks.


People over the centuries have puzzled over human resiliency, how can some people come out  the other end of war and continue to live a happy and full life while others might struggle or be destroyed by the experience. Reading John’s Civil War diary and the articles he later wrote, he seems to be the sort of person who is always looking for the good or interesting in everything. Why dwell on an amputated arm when you have lots of friends visiting you in the hospital? Why walk in a straight line when working for the census when you can hopscotch all over town visiting friends? We sometimes joke that he reads like a little bit of a himbo- a sort of happy-go-lucky human golden retriever.  The other part of his resiliency might just be pure happenstance. John was, in some ways, prepared early on to ride out the upheaval after the war because he already had to retrain for a new career after an injury in his teens rather than having to do so after the war.

John Allen Bigelow’s story is an important one, not just because he was a veteran of a war, but because we can see what life was like for a disabled individual during the mid 1800s through the early 1900s. His life can also help us bridge the gap between the Civil War and everything that came after. Sometimes in history wars are presented as their own separate little entities in their own little bubbles and social movements as their own seperate little bubbles. But this just isn’t how it works. The Civil War laid the foundations for the future success of the women’s suffrage movement, the growth of industry in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement and so many more things that impacted every facet of life in the country and we’ll have more stories later on that deal directly with the aftermath of the war.

Speaking of resiliency, next time we have the story of a man who, when the going got tough, got going. Robert Opdyke disappeared without a trace from his Birmingham business only to show up years later in New York. It’s a story of business and failure in 1800s Birmingham and how some people went way out of their way to deal with economic reversals.

To read parts of John’s diary, and to see photos and other documents related to his story, check out our website, link is in the shownotes. I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum, and our amazing volunteers.


Young John Allen Bigelow
Young John Allen Bigelow
Orrin Poppleton's Store
Poppleton's store is on the far left in the photo below taken c. 1889

poppleton after 1889 Poppleton's is on the right below, c. 1913
poppleton's after 1913
Richard Whitehead
Richard "Dick" Whitehead
Richard Whitehead
John Allen Bigelow's 1864 Diary
This diary covered John Allen Bigelow's last year of fighting.Cover page for the Diary
Dead Horses and ScribblesSelected page from the Diary
Flashing Sabers
This is an article that John Allen Bigelow wrote about the Battle of Gettysburg
Bigelow's Bussinesses
One armed Insurance Agent Ad1909 Bigelow adTwo 1909 ads advertising John Allen Bigelow as the "One armed Insurance Agent"
John Allen Bigelow as an older man
John Allen Bigelow older