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Upright Sleeper


We’ve all heard about talking in your sleep – and many of us do. And then there’s sleep walking, which afflicted pilot Carl Ben Eielson the night before he’d set out on any new adventure. But today’s story is about something far more unusual.

On this date in 1905, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican published a story titled “Aged Negress Slept Standing Twenty Years.” The story was about a woman named Mary Dickerson, who was called Aunt Dickie by most people. She lived with Mrs. B. H. Smoot in north Fargo and was referred to in the vernacular of those times as “an old colored mammy.”

There were few background details on Aunt Dickie, but the story said she was “so old that she herself doesn’t know her age.” She knew only that she was born into slavery in Mississippi somewhere between 1825 and 1835. It wasn’t explained how Dickerson ended up in Fargo. Mrs. Smoot said only that Aunt Dickie was sprightly, did her share of the housework and regularly went to church. She had also been using morphine for 50 years; how she got started on it wasn’t explained.

Aunt Dickie had fought her morphine addiction for many years without success, and doctors were unable to help her kick her habit. “A brown, wrinkled arm, punctured by a myriad of pricks of the hypodermic needle, tells the life story of Aunt Dickie,” the story read.

Mrs. Smoot said, “...she’d be crazy at times and would go to extremes to get the drug.” Then, on Christmas morning, 1904, Aunt Dickie had an abrupt recovery while attending church at the Christian and Missionary Alliance. “...the god (sic) Lord has saved me from this awful shame,” she told the reporter. “He has made me whole.”

Mrs. Smoot confirmed Aunt Dickie’s recovery, saying, “Now she is able to work and is at peace with the world.” But there was still one thing Aunt Dickie couldn’t do. She couldn’t sleep lying down.

Dr. E. L. Siegelstein said, “I attended her several months ago when she was slightly ill. I told her she must go to bed for a few days. Her answer startled me. ‘I can’t go to bed,’ she said. “I haven’t been to bed for twenty years.’” Dr. Siegelstein assumed she slept in a chair, but he was wrong. Aunt Dickie slept standing up.

“I didn’t believe her at the time,” he said. “But some time later I visited the house again and found her asleep. She was leaning against the wall and was sound asleep as though she had been in the softest bed. I was greatly interested and questioned her. She gave a novel but plausible reason, but I have failed to find a parallel case in medicine.”

“It’s this way,” Aunt Dickie explained. “When I took the dope, I had the most terrible dreams. The more morphine I took, the worse the dreams got. I found that when I took the dope and went to bed I would dream of falling into hell’s fire or going through the worst tortures. I just couldn’t stand it and I’d have to get up and take more dope.

“I just couldn’t afford that,” she said. “I had just money enough to buy a little of the stuff at a time and couldn’t afford to take it day and night. So I started to sleep in a chair. That was better. But the dreams still came and so I started to sleep standing up. Then I had no bad dreams and I’ve kept it up ever since. I couldn’t sleep in a bed now if I wanted to.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm