The heroes of this story are the citizens of Howe, Indiana, who knew Crissy as a human being, not as a sideshow curiosity.
The motorists came in Fords and Chryslers and LaSalles, sometimes two at a time, sometimes in a caravan. They navigated the flat dirt roads of northern Indiana towards Howe, Indiana. Towards Crissy, the skunk lady (spelled “Crissey” or “Crissie” in some accounts).
Indiana categorized Howe as an unincorporated township (and still does), which meant a smatterings of business and two smatterings of homes, neither of which these new visitors cared for. Instead, they wound through the tiny town to a patchwork shack on the fringe of the town. Cobbled together from tin sheets and damp wood, the shack overlooked an overgrown clearing of discarded garage and animal excrement.
Before the motorists even shut off their engines, the front door would bang open and a slump-shouldered elderly woman with the gray-matted skin of the perpetually unwashed stepped into the yard. Stains of every shape, color and size covered her dress and she wore no stockings, only boxy men’s shoes. She smiled and waved and hurried out the door, leaving it wide open for the curious visitors.A large skunk perched on her shoulder, blinking at the cars and visitors.
By now, this skunk had become used the dozens of visitors that came by every week to see Crissy. His indifference to the attention made him almost as famous as her, and his name “Old Rover” had made the rounds in the regional circles. After a quick glance at the small crowd, the old skunk turned its head and tucked it against Crissy’s round shoulder.The motorists peered into her shack. The woman lived in almost primeval squalor, hardly any different then the dozens of animals, chiefly skunks, she kept as “pets”. She called them pets, but this wasn’t exactly the case.
Loneliness hadn’t deprived her of her entrepreneurial spirit and she produced a tidy sum every month skinning skunks and selling the pelts.The only skunk that seemed to stick around was Old Rover, apparently not disturbed in seeing his fellows’ skin stretched out and drying around the property.
Crissy slept on a pile of straw and her life orbited around a single piece of makeshift furniture: a large wooden box, where she would both eat and skin animals without even a wet wipe.This scene played out over and over, day after day, for several years.
By this point in the visit, when the road dust had settled, her soot-smeared face would grin, cackle, and spout out strings of curse words coarse enough to make a sailor blush. And then the smell would hit everyone, full-force, like being slapped by a sack of shit and cheese, left several days in the hot sun—unwashed human sweat, animal waste, decomposing meat seemed mild compared to the eye-watering stench of skunk spray. It covered everything, everywhere.
After only five or ten minutes outside her shack, the visitors’ eyes watered with this noxious cloud. Their hands politely drifted to cover their noses and mouths, right about the time Crissy would start a bizarre, clumsy dance. She’d hum a tuneless song, turn and wiggle her fingers and kick her clodhopper shoes a few inches off the ground. Visitors would back away either consciously or unconsciously, and the polite covering of the noses and mouths would cease. Now they clamped them down.
The odor grew and grew, like the swelling of an orchestra before a symphony. It became a living thing. She punctuated her ritual dance with curse words, tossing them out with kicks as she hummed her nonsense song. Her voice was a deep rasp, with nothing musical or lyrical about it. Visitors backed away even further. They came here to see the SKUNK LADY OF HOWE, a living sideshow attraction they heard was “The Filthiest Woman in the World.”
Talking about it was one thing. But to be here, on her property, and actually see this mentally-ill woman who had neither bathed nor changed her clothes in years, the idea of adventure collapsed under the stink of madness. Crissy had this stuff timed perfectly. Tucking Old Rover higher on her shoulder, where he could wrap himself over her dirt-encrusted neck like a shawl, she produced a small hat and held it out.
Trembling finger plucked coins and sometimes bills out of pockets and dropped it into the hat. Sometimes they just tossed it into the dirt at her feet, walking quickly back to their cars and driving away faster than how they came, leaving Crissy standing in front of her hovel in Howe, amused and profitable.
The causes and conditions of Crissy the Skunk Lady’s (whose real name was Christina Hand, later Christina Sullivan) seemingly decrepit life are muddy at best. She was born in Indiana, she worked as a domestic, got married and then her husband died suddenly. Her lifestyle might have resulted from genes or circumstances, but her fame sprouted too many confusing and contradictory rumors.
We do know how her life ended.
By the time she was 70, living on her own and juggling the hundreds of visitors and the menagerie of animals became too difficult, especially with her near-constant stomach pains (the cause of which is unknown). Her fame had only grown, especially after the popular Ripley’s Believe or Not featured her. The constant stream of visitors and the struggle of primitive living became too much. She needed help.
The town of Howe was and is filled with good people, and Hoosiers, come Hell or high water, take care of their own. After a state inspector took a single look at her shack and immediately condemned it, Howe citizens knew the time had come to end the Skunk Lady shenanigans.They sat down with Crissy and she agreed to leave behind her persona as the “Filthiest Woman in the World.” Instead, they collected funds to built her a small, modern home.
Crissy provided some of the money herself and started selling copies of her picture. Builders completed the house and Crissy moved in. Eventually she donned clean clothes and, in a event Howe residents categorized as apocalyptic, forced Crissy to bathe. No details on that experience are clear. And, even if they were, would not be shared.
After less than a year in her new home, Crissy died of unknown causes and the townsfolk buried her in Howe’s Riverside Cemetery. Eventually they collected enough to build her a small monument but no one knew exactly where she was buried in the cemetery, but they build and placed a monument nonetheless, memorializing the town’s most famous and strangest daughter.