Beecher was a name to reckon with in mid-19th-century America. Lyman Beecher was a nationally known preacher. On Long Island and in Litchfield, he and two wives produced 11 sons and daughters who survived to adulthood, almost all involved in major issues of the day - the liberalizing of Calvinism, the fight against slavery, the Civil War and the struggle for women's rights.
Hartford was home to three, including the most prominent, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was simply the bestseller of the 19th century, outstripping anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain or any other wildly popular authors of that era. It was translated into 42 languages and for a while was the most popular book in the world, after the Bible.
"It was transmuted into song, theater, statuary, toys, games, handkerchiefs, wallpapers, plates, spoons, candlesticks, and every form of kitsch that the commercial mind could imagine," writes Trinity professor Joan D. Hedrick in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 biography of Stowe.
During the Gilded Age, Stowe was a much-admired figure on the Hartford scene, and a diminutive one, under 5 feet tall. When Abraham Lincoln said to her, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war," he was speaking literally, not condescendingly.
She wrote several other novels, including "Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp," about a slave rebellion, and "The Minister's Wooing," about the contrast between the men who made New England theology and the women who had to deal with the emotional reality behind it.
Stowe and her sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, got their first taste of Hartford through the educational efforts of their older sister, Catharine Beecher. Eleven years older than Harriet, and 22 years older than Isabella, Catharine took over the female leadership of the family after her mother died in 1816. She brought her skills to Hartford, founded a school for girls with another sister, Mary, and devoted the rest of her life to the education of women, including the introduction of "domestic science," later called "home ec" and now "domestic studies," into schools. Her work inspired the founding of several Midwest women's schools and colleges.
Catharine Beecher lived for a time with Harriet and her husband, Calvin, on Forest Street in Hartford and co-authored "The American Woman's Home, or The Principles of Domestic Science" with her. She was the consummate organization woman. A few days before her death at 78 in 1878, she wrote: "My plan is to consult the heads of women's institutions and superintendents of common schools this summer. ... I am going to Philadelphia and New Jersey ... and am forming women's committees to cooperate. ... I am stronger than for years."
The youngest, Isabella, who was deeply involved in spiritualism, was one of the strangest yet most appealing Beechers. She once tried to make Beethoven's ghost materialize and believed that the spirits would, on Jan. 1, 1877, establish a matriarchal world government with herself as president.
She was married to John Hooker, who with his brother-in-law Francis Gillette bought a 100-acre farm in western Hartford called Nook Farm, laid out streets and became congenial developers for relatives and friends who moved to the area from the increasingly crowded downtown.
"Each of us," said Hooker, "made free of the others' houses ... each keeping open house, and all of us frequently gathering for a social evening or to welcome some friendly visitor, often some person distinguished in political, literary, or philanthropic life, who had come to some of our houses."
Twain and his wife rented the Hookers' house for their first few years in Hartford, before their brick mansion down the street was ready.
Hooker was a lawyer and would read to his wife, reputedly the most beautiful of the Beecher siblings, from Sir William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England." She was already a leader. Shocked by the lack of legal rights for women, and influenced by John Stuart Mill's "On the Subjugation of Women," she joined the women's-rights movement with Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull.
Isabella Beecher Hooker had already alienated many of her neighbors (including her former tenant, Twain) with her opposition to her brother, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, when the hugely popular preacher was tarnished by an adultery scandal prompted by Woodhull. Her frosty rejection by her neighbors and her spiritualist pursuits didn't prevent her from forming the New England Woman Suffrage Association, getting a women's property rights bill passed in the state legislature and writing and speaking extensively on women's issues.
Some scholars focused on her oddness and belief in communicating with spirits, undercutting her achievements in the cause of women's rights.
"A psychiatrist would find it illuminating that many of the people who [she said] appeared to her asked only forgiveness for wrongs she had suffered at their hands," writes Kenneth R. Andrews, the great historian of Nook Farm. For example, she believed Horace Bushnell had told her, shortly after his death, that he had been wrong to oppose women's suffrage.
arry stopped his horse and his imprecations. There was a crackling in the swamp, and a movement along the copse of briars; and at last the speaker emerged, and stood before Harry. He was a tall black man, of magnificent stature and proportions. His skin was intensely black, and polished like marble. A loose shirt of red flannel, which opened very wide at his breasts, gave a display of a neck and chest of herculean strength. The sleeves of the shirt, rolled up nearly to the shoulders, showed the muscles of a gladiator."
- From "Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal
Swamp" (1856) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, pictured at left
t is to mothers and to teachers that the world is to look for the character which is to be enstamped on each succeeding generation, for it is to them that the great business of education is almost exclusively committed. And will it not appear by examination that neither mothers nor teachers have ever been properly educated for their profession? What is the profession of a woman? Is it not to form immortal minds, and to watch, to nurse, and to rear the bodily system, so fearfully and wonderfully made, and upon the order and regulation of which the health and well-being of the mind so greatly depends? But let most of our sex, upon whom these arduous duties devolve, be asked: Have you ever devoted any time and study, in the course of your education, to any preparation for these duties?. ...Perhaps almost every voice would respond, no."
- From "Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education" (1829)
by Catharine BeecherCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun