On the Friday evening of 28 June 1861, nearly 60 passengers boarded the packet St. Nicholas for a voyage from Baltimore to Washington. Because the Civil War had begun two months earlier and the passengers had to be searched for weapons and/or contraband, the boarding process took some time. There was a further delay when one of the last passengers, a stylishly dressed woman who registered as Madame la Force, was accompanied by a number of large trunks that had to be hauled aboard and wrestled below to her cabin.
The young woman spoke fluent French and little English, but she soon was communicating with the male passengers and crew in more fundamental ways. She flirted shamelessly, tossing her head coquettishly and peering through a veil that covered her eyes and cheeks but not her red lips. Most of the ship's officers were mesmerized by the charming woman, but the ship's captain later said, "I didn't like the appearance of that French woman at all. She sat next to me at table so close that our legs touched." Another passenger reported that the "young woman behaved so scandalously that all the other women on the boat were in a terrible state over it."