Witch of Wall Street or Modern Woman? Hetty Green

In 1834, in the prosperous town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Edward Robinson waited impatiently for the birth of his second child. Finally, on November 22nd the birth came. But Edward had nothing to celebrate. He was so disappointed that he refused to see his wife or his new baby. Her sin? She was a girl. Henry needed an heir and to him that meant a son.

Hetty Green’s first introduction to the world was seen as a tragedy instead of a joy and she soon came to realize what a disappointment she was. Her mother was not well, and was unable to have another child, so her father’s wish for a son was never fulfilled. When Hetty was two years old, she was shipped off to her grandfather to live with his family. Her parents did not want to see the constant reminder of their failure. Somehow, Hetty was able to build a satisfying life for herself. She was bright and soon learned that she could be useful to her grandfather by reading the market reports to him. She realized that her value to her family lay in how much she could help build up the family fortune.

Hetty Green

After Hetty’s grandfather died, Hetty returned to live with her family. When her mother died, her aunt took over as the person responsible for guiding Hetty into a normal social life. But Hetty was not like other young women of her time. Instead of being fascinated by clothes,  jewelry and parties, Hetty preferred to learn more about banks and bonds. Instead of spending hours being fitted for new clothes and attending parties, Hetty preferred to wear cheap, unfashionable clothes and to talk with men about whaling ships and railroads.

In despair of marrying Hetty off, her aunt sent her to New York to live with friends for a year, but despite all their efforts, Hetty resisted joining society. She left New York early and returned to New Bedford without having spent all of the money given to her for the year. Instead, she had bought bonds to increase the money. Her father was pleased to see what a good businessperson she was, but she still had no husband.

During the Civil War, New Bedford’s industry had changed. The discovery of oil and the development of commercial oil wells had ruined the market for whale oil. Hetty’s father moved his business to New York and Hetty spent her time partly in that city and partly with her aunt in New Bedford. In New York she met a prosperous young businessman, Edward Green, of Vermont. He and Hetty married in 1867, with the blessing of her father, but Hetty and her family insisted that the family fortune should be left to her alone when the older generation died.

Hetty was a brilliant businesswoman and continued investing money and reaping profits. Everyone agreed that she was a clever investor, but the men in her life, like most men at the time, clung to the belief that women should not control money. When her father and her aunt died in quick succession, they both left their money to Hetty, but they left it in trust funds, so that she was not able to make decisions about its use. This lack of trust in her abilities made Hetty furious and she sued to get control of her trust funds. There is still disagreement about whether or not Hetty forged her aunt’s signature on a document changing her will, but Hetty lost the suit and was not allowed to manage the money left to her.

During the prosperous decades of the post-Civil War years, High Society flourished in New York. Socialites like Mrs. Astor ruled society, sponsoring receptions, teas, and dances which dominated high society. Many of the men who were making the money to support this society did not participate in it. They let their wives and children dominate the social events while they stayed at home, moved to country estates, or in other ways found the time to carry out the business that enabled their families to live this lavish lifestyle. On this subject, Hetty joined the men.

Instead of spending her time socializing and managing the large households where parties were held, Hetty joined the men in escaping to quiet solitude and concentrated on business. Instead of buying a mansion, she lived in boarding houses where other people worried about preparing meals and keeping house. For this, journalists punished Hetty severely. She was a woman so she should have wanted to be part of high society. Reporters enjoyed tracking her down to the quiet boarding houses where she lived and publishing the addresses. Some reporters called her “The Witch of Wall Street” and she received constant solicitations from people who wanted money or jobs. But Hetty went her own way.

Hetty’s private life mystified the media, but she seems to have been satisfied with it. During her business career, while Hetty made millions of dollars, she also managed to live a fairly normal family life. She and her husband had two children. While they shared a fairly close personal life, they did not share their business affairs. Hettie was by far the better judge of how to make money, while her husband often made bad investments and lost much of his. Eventually they lived separate lives, but they never divorced and Hetty remained very close to her children. As she grew older, her son became her closest business confidante and handled many of her business affairs. When she died, she was buried beside her husband in his family plot in Vermont.

Hetty Green was the subject of much curiosity and wonder throughout her life. Perhaps the greatest mystery, one which her contemporaries never solved, was the question of how she could have handled her business career just as if she were a man. Reporters and gossips alike found it almost unbelievable that she did not crave fashionable clothes or jewelry and did not attempt to spend her time making calls upon the leading society women of her time. 

Some of these questions are addressed in a recent biography by Janet Wallach, The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. (2012 Random House). Wallach gives a balanced account of Hettie’s life, one which makes her seem far more human than she seemed in many of the gossipy stories about her that appeared during her lifetime. Hetty Green may have been an eccentric in her time, but today she seems far more like a 21st century woman than like her contemporaries during the Gilded Age.   

“Helpless” Woman Helps Pirate—Sarah Kidd

During Colonial days in America, women were considered so weak that they needed the support of a husband or father to accomplish anything. Girls were seldom taught to read or write because those were skills they would never need. But Sarah Kidd demonstrated that a determined woman could handle property, raise a family, and support her husband’s cause even though she didn’t learn to sign her name until she was a middle-aged woman.

Sarah was born in England in about 1645. Like most girls of her time, she married young and soon had a daughter to care for. She and her husband emigrated to America with their young daughter hoping to find more work and greater prosperity. America offered opportunity, but it was also filled with dangers, especially from illness. Sarah’s husband soon died, leaving her with a child to raise and no chance of employment.

Like most young widows, Sarah married again. Her life seemed to be following a familiar path, but there was little certainty in colonial life. Her second husband, Samuel Cox, was a merchant and Sarah soon learned a lot about taking care of property and managing shops. She became a wealthy woman. Unfortunately, Cox was considerably older than she was and he died, leaving her again a widow.

Her third marriage was short, but during it she found the man who would define her life—Captain William Kidd. He was clearly the love of her life and they were partners in business and in life. At the time they met, Kidd was a respected and successful ship’s captain and a privateer.

Captain Kidd

Today we think of privateers as criminals, but things were different back in Sarah’s time. The American colonies were struggling to remain free from what they viewed as unfair rules imposed by England. New York, for example, was pushed to become a part of New England instead of maintaining its status as a separate colony.

Sarah and Kidd were a prosperous and popular couple during the first years of their marriage. They owned property, gave parties, and were friends of many of the most important citizens of New York.

One of their friends was the Earl of Bellomont, who was governor of a large area from Massachusetts to New York. He commissioned Kidd to hunt down pirates and enemy French ships in the Indian Ocean. Kidd’s trip was a long one, but he hoped to return in a year and be with Sarah, who was pregnant with another child at the time he left.

Time dragged on and everything seemed to go wrong on the trip. Men who had signed on hoping to enrich themselves were bitterly disappointed as the months went by. Several of them rebelled and Kidd punished them harshly. At least one man died after his punishment. Kidd declared it was an accident, but some of the sailors began calling Kidd a murderer.

Sarah struggled to take care of her children in New York where Kidd had left her. Finally, she got a message telling her to go to Boston to meet her husband. She hurried to meet him, but he was no longer a free man. Political feelings had changed in England. Privateers were no longer needed and the government was attempting to get rid of pirates. Kidd found himself condemned by the people who had hired him. His friend Bellomont turned against him and refused to defend him. He spent two years imprisoned in Boston and was finally sent to London where he was kept in prison for another three years before finally being hanged in 1701.

 After Kidd died, Sarah was left a widow again. Not only had she lost her husband, but she had also lost her social position and credibility. Within a few months after his death, ballads about the “notorious Captain Kidd” were circulating in both London and New York. Sarah and her children lost a husband and father as well as their reputations. They also lost Kidd’s property, which was confiscated by the state. For two years they lived in seclusion in New York.

Fortunately, Sarah still had a father and a brother. When the brother died, she received his property and was able to move to a more suitable house than the one she had been living in. She married one last time, changed her name to Rouseby and lived respectably until her death in 1744.  Somehow, out of all the troubles of her life, she managed to demonstrate that she was far from helpless. She worked her way out of poverty and raised her children to become prosperous citizens of the new country. You can learn more about her life by reading a recent book written by Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos, The Pirate’s Wife: The Remarkable True Story of Sarah Kidd (2022)

Sarah Kidd did not leave many written records of her life and questions remain, but she demonstrated that she was a strong, clever head of the family. Despite being a mere woman, she built a satisfying life for her children and descendants.

Saving Ancient Temples and Facing Modern War

The civilization of ancient Egypt has fascinated Europeans for centuries. When Napoleon’s army invaded Egypt during the early 1800s, they brought many Egyptian artifacts  to France and placed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  It is no wonder that a young girl being raised in Paris a hundred years later became fascinated with Egypt and decided to devote her life to the study of Egyptology. But no one would have predicted that Christiane Desroches would become a world-famous Egyptologist and the savior of some of the most important tombs ever built in Egypt.

Christiane Desroches was born in Paris on November 17, 1913, the daughter of a prosperous lawyer who encouraged his children to read and to study. She was lucky to have teachers who recognized her abilities and helped her to find her path. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 caused a great stir in France and like many other young people, Christiane decided to become an Egyptologist. Unlike most other students of her time, Christiane never lost her enthusiasm. Encouraged by her teachers, Christiane was able to get a job working in the Egyptian department of the Louvre classifying and cataloging Egyptian artifacts.

During the 1930s, she became the first woman to lead an expedition to Egypt to study antiquities. Her trip there was not easy. Men had dominated Egyptology ever since the study began. Many of the scholars who were part of the expedition belittled Christiane’s contributions because they did not believe a woman could handle the hard physical labor of digging up artifacts, but Christiane proved her worth. She worked well with the Egyptian field workers and became friendly with many of the Egyptian families in the camp. And her patient field work led her to discover important items that were taken to the Louvre and added to their collection.

Then came Hitler’s rise to power, which led to World War II. As the German army moved closer and closer to Paris and threatened to capture the city. Christiane realized that the precious Egyptian artifacts she had studied might be captured and taken to German museums or even destroyed. She and other museum employees mounted a campaign to move the treasures to unoccupied areas in France where they would be safe. They carefully packed up the artifacts they treasured and secretly moved them through the German lines to safety in the unoccupied areas of southern France. Despite being caught and questioned by Gestapo agents, Christiane managed to maintain her secrets and save many of the most important artworks owned by the Louvre.

Among the people she met during the war was Andre Noblecourt, who she married in 1942. Their marriage was never a traditional one, although it was long and happy. Christiana did not give up her maiden name but linked her married name to that of her husband, an unusual choice in France at that time. After the war her husband worked for the Louvre and eventually became a security adviser for the national museums of France. When the war ended, Christiane went back to her position as curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre. She wrote several popular books about Egyptology and taught at the Louvre school.

During the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt, many European countries worried that his efforts to make the lives of Egyptian people better would result in the loss of many of the monuments of ancient Egyptian civilization. Christiane Desroches- Noblecourt played an important role in persuading UNESCO to contribute money to preserve the monuments. The work became especially urgent after Nasser’s decision to build a second Aswan dam in 1954.

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt was tireless in visiting government leaders throughout Europe and persuading them to support the efforts of the Egyptologists. She even spoke personally to De Gaulle, who was reluctant to contribute French money to the effort at a time when France was still rebuilding from the devastation of World War II. Christiane also found an ally in Jacqueline Kennedy, who was keenly interested in French culture. Jacqueline in turn encouraged her husband President John Kennedy to find American support for the efforts.

The work of saving Egypt’s monuments continued for many years. Huge monuments were lifted out of the desert sands and moved to higher ground. Some of the artifacts found in Egypt were sent to countries that had contributed to the restoration efforts. (You can read the full story at International Campaign )   

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt did not rest on her laurels after these achievements. She lived a long and active life even after she had to give up her active field work. She continued teaching and writing until almost the end of her life. She died at the age of 97 in 2011. A vivid account of the work of Desroches-Noblecourt can be found in a recent book, Olson, Lynne (2023). Empress of the Nile: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples from Destruction.

Sinner or Savior? Madame Restell

Mary Trow–Madame Restell

During the 1800s, New York City was an expanding city with a growing population of immigrants and newcomers from rural states. Among the immigrants in 1832 was a young English girl named Mary Stow Sommers and her husband with their infant daughter. Unfortunately, the husband died soon after their arrival in the city, and Mary had to find work to support her daughter. That was no easy task, and Mary struggled to find work she could manage from home while she took care of her daughter. Her brother, who had also moved to America, worked in a pharmacy and Mary soon realized there was a business opportunity in developing skill as a midwife.

At that time, many of women’s healthcare needs were taken care of by women rather than by doctors, all of whom were men. Midwives assisted women in giving birth. They also helped when pregnant women had a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Many of them provided medications made from natural products to ease the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth.

Mary was a quick learner and soon realized that taking care of women’s health needs was a business opportunity. As she learned more about drugs and natural products that were used to help a woman become pregnant as well as to prevent miscarriages and stillbirths and to ease the pains of giving birth, she built up an efficient organization. She changed her name to Madame Restell and claimed to have learned her medical skills in France. She also married her second husband, Charles Lohman, a printer and a freethinker, who helped her in reaching out to a wide audience.

Many pregnant women wanted abortions because there were no effective contraceptives at that time. Abortions were not illegal if they occurred during early pregnancy, before ‘quickening’ or the time when the fetus began to move in the womb. Within a few years, Mary had established herself as a reliable midwife and as a woman who could help with difficult births, miscarriages, and also provide abortions.

Restell was a good businesswoman as well as a good medical practitioner. She placed ads in the newspapers to let people know that about the services she offered. Not only did she provide medication and treatments, she also helped women who came to her for other needs. Women who wanted to have a baby and give it up for adoption, could stay with her for weeks before the birth knowing that they would have the safest care available. Her clients included wealthy women as well as prostitutes and young unmarried girls. The age of consent was very low, sometimes as low as 10 or 12 years of age, so many young girls fell prey to employers or relatives who were unwilling to take any responsibility for providing care for the girls if they became pregnant.

Madame Restell not only became successful, she also became famous and very wealthy. She built a large mansion directly across the street from the Catholic Archbishop of New York. He could rail against her and her activities from the pulpit, but he could not prevent her from carrying on her business in his own neighborhood.

When Restell travelled around the city, she rode in an elegant carriage drawn by large, handsome horses and driven by coachmen in expensive livery. Madame Restell became a celebrity, and a very wealthy one. Other women followed her example and tried to build up practices similar to hers, but none became as famous as Restell.

As the years went by, doctors noticed that this large section of healthcare was handled by untrained women rather than male doctors, and some of them determined to take over the field. Doctors, despite having more education than female midwives, did not always offer better service. The germ theory was unknown, so doctors did not consider it necessary to wash their hands before attending a birth. Babies delivered by doctors died more often than babies delivered by midwives during these early years. Nonetheless doctors continued to push to take over the entire field of medical services.

For forty years Madame Restell managed her successful business and offered her services to many women, but finally one activist brought an end to her career. That man was Anthony Comstock, who campaigned for “virtue” by trying to eliminate obscenity, contraception, abortion, and several other activities he considered to be sinful. He fought bitterly against Madame Restell and her services. In 1878, he managed to trick her by showing up at her house and asking for contraceptives for his wife. Restell gave him some of her products, but he returned the next day with several policemen and had her arrested.  

At this time, Madame Restell was suffering from a series of troubles. More and more people began to support Comstock’s campaign against obscenity, more doctors were offering services that competed with hers, and her private life was disrupted by the sudden death of her husband a short time before her arrest.

Comstock fought bitterly to bring Restell to court before a judge who was hostile to her. He fought to have her denied bail and it was clear that he wanted to defeat her and drive her out of business. But she was a strong and determined woman. On the morning of the day she was scheduled to appear in court, her body was found in the bathtub of her home. She had evaded a final reckoning by slitting her throat. Comstock had finally managed to defeat the most famous abortionist of nineteenth century America.

The full story of Madame Restell is told in a recent book, Madame Restell: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by JenniferWright (2022), There you will find an account not only of Restell’s life, but also much of the background about how women’s right to control their fertility and their bodies became a battleground. Today’s news will tell you that this struggle is far from over.

The Woman Who Couldn’t Stop Writing—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Eighteenth century women were expected to lead quiet lives within their family circle. But Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would not accept that life. She was tormented by the need to express herself and be recognized as the brilliant, successful writer that she was. Throughout her life, she wrote and published articles, sent travel letters to a wide circle of friends, kept a journal, and even publicized new medical treatments. How could she help but yearn for acknowledgement and fame, unwomanly though that idea was?

Lady Mary was born Mary Pierpont on May 15, 1689, into a wealthy British family. Even as a child she showed an avid interest in books and she learned to read at an early age. Mary’s mother and her grandmother encouraged Mary’s interests and the girl spent hours in the family’s large library where she taught herself Latin and read widely. Unfortunately, both her mother and her grandmother died while Mary was still a child and her father did not believe that women should be too highly educated. However, Mary was a stubborn girl and she continued to pursue her literary interests. At the age of 14, she collected her early poems together and produced a booklet that she proudly showed to her family and some of her friends.

Like all wealthy women of the time, Mary was expected to marry young and in 1712, she married Edward Wortley Montagu despite some opposition from her father. She soon produced a son, but continued her writing, especially after she and her husband moved to London. Living in the city, where Lady Mary met most of the leading intellectuals of the day, was delightful. Among her friends were Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope two of the most important cultural leaders in the city. Addison encouraged her to write for the Spectator, the leading journal of the time, and she became the only woman whose articles appeared there. Like all of the articles, hers were unsigned, but at least her friends knew that she had written them.

Life in London was not free of trouble. When she was 25 years old, Mary got smallpox, a constant danger in London. Friends and family were afraid she might die, but she recovered well and soon gave birth to a healthy daughter. Nonetheless, her face was permanently scarred—a bitter trial for a young woman. The many portraits of Lady Mary which still exist do not show the scars, but no doubt they were visible to her as well as to the people around her.  

The biggest event of Lady Mary’s early years of marriage occurred when her husband was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and the family moved to Istanbul.  After a long and difficult journal the family settled into their new quarters. Through all of their adventures, Lady Mary continued to write long letters to her friends and family. Her descriptions of life in Istanbul introduced Londoners to the exotic life she and her family were living. Lady Mary had an advantage over many other travelers because, she could mingle with Turkish women and learn how they lived, raised their children, and lived their lives. She was impressed by the social baths where women gathered every week  and shared stories, news, and ideas.  

One discovery Lady Mary made was that the dreaded smallpox was not feared as much in Turkey as it was in England and other European countries. “I am going to tell you a thing which I am sure will make you wish yourself here,” she wrote in one of her letters. And she described the process of variolation, during which Turkish doctors injected a small amount of smallpox germs into an individual to prevent their catching smallpox. “This method,” she continued, makes the disease – “so fatal, and so general amongst us” – all but “harmless” amongst the Turks.”

Lady Mary had her son and other family members inoculated. When she returned to England, she brought variolation back home, introducing the practice to the aristocracy and their physicians.

After Lady Mary and her family returned to England, she continued to live an active, intellectual life. She never stopped writing, turning to poetry in her later years, but she continued to be reluctant to sign her name to her work. Although some of Lady Mary’s works continue to be available, especially her travel letters and her poems, she has never received the attention she deserves as a writer. A fascinating account of Lady Mary’s work and her ambitions is told in a recent book by Anna Beer, Eve Bites Back: An Alternative History of English Literature (2022

Writing Women Who Started a Trend—Jane and Maria Porter

During the early 1800s, more and more people in England were leaning to read. In 1800, 60% of men and 40% of women were literate, but the numbers were growing every year. Supporters of public education declared that the purpose of reading was to give people access to the Bible. But the secret passion of the new readers was often to read fiction—stories that brought excitement and pleasure into their lives. And the people who wrote the stories that people clamored for were often women.

Two of the women who provided popular fiction for the masses were the sisters Jane and Maria Porter. They were born in the 1780s to an Irish doctor and his wife who were then living in Durham, England. Besides Jane and Maria, there were three sons in the family and their father encouraged them all to read, write and learn as much as they could. Unfortunately, the father died young, shortly after Maria was born, leaving them without a secure income. His widow moved the family to Edinburgh where the two girls attended a charity school. Both of them were attracted to reading and writing and as they grew older, they began publishing short articles. In 1790 the family moved to London.

While the boys in the family tried to earn their livings by joining the army or becoming diplomats, both of the girls turned to writing. Between them, they may have invented the historical novel. Jane Porter’s first novels, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and The Scottish Chiefs (1810) were based on well-known figures and were written in a popular style. Both became bestsellers. Many of Jane’s books went through numerous editions and some remained in print for more than 100 years. In fact several editions of The Scottish Chiefs are still available on the Amazon website. But, despite the pleasures of fame, being a bestselling author during the nineteenth century was not easy, especially for a woman.

Maria Porter

At the time when the Porter sisters were writing, women were expected to be dependent on men for economic security. Either their fathers or their husbands were supposed to earn money; women stayed at home. The three Porter brothers should have taken on responsibility for supporting their widowed mother and the two girls, but instead they spent much of their time building up debts of their own. The girls took over, but writing and publishing novels was not an easy way to earn money.

Today, authors expect to earn royalties on the books they write. The more popular a book becomes, the more money the author earns. During the early 1800s, there was no such thing as royalties. Books were sold to the publisher for a flat payment and if they were reprinted and sold widely, the publisher made the money, not the author. The only way the writer could earn more money was to update and change the story and sell it to a publisher as a new book.

The Porter sisters were always short of money, because they supported themselves as well as their mother. The best solution to find security would have been to marry a man with a good income. Both Maria and Jane were attractive women and men clustered around them at social events. Several times they met men who appeared ready to suggest marriage, but somehow, when a wealthier young woman appeared on the scene, each of the Porter’s suitors decided to marry for money rather than to propose to a penniless writer.

Besides not having royalties, the Porter sisters also suffered from the lack of international copyright. Their books sold well in America, but the authors received no money at all from these sales. Late in her life, after Maria died, and while Jane was struggling to keep going, her American publisher wrote to her to say that he believed she deserved some share of the profit he was making from her books. Instead of sending money, however, he sent a gift—a large chair, which turned out to be useless because Jane had no place to keep it.

Both Jane and Maria Porter have been almost forgotten, but fortunately for us, they exchanged numerous letters with one another and the letters have survived. In 2022, their lives were retold in a remarkable book–Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes  (NY: Bloomsbury 2022) by Devoney Looser. It makes me happy to know that Jane and Maria are being honored at last and I’m sure many readers will join me in celebrating their lives.

Witches–They Weren’t Who You Think They Were

Every year when Halloween comes along, images of black-robed witches suddenly appear in ads and on social media. It is curious that witches still remain a prominent part of our culture even though more than 300 years have passed since witches played an important role in American history. [The witches who were part of the culture of indigenous people in America are not the ones who are remembered at Halloween. The black-robed women who are pictured on candy boxes and Halloween cards come from the European tradition.]

Modern Halloween costume

Witchcraft accusations have a long history in Europe, but at the time when the American colonies were being settled, the fever was dying down in England and most of Europe. As witch trials dwindled in England, they grew in the American colonies which had been settled by people from England. But there were differences. In the New England colonies more women than men were punished for witchcraft. And the victims were not just a random group of cranky old women who annoyed the neighbors, put spells on livestock and in general caused trouble. What was it that made the accused so vulnerable to being described as witches?

In recent years, historians have studied the records of accusations of witchcraft in early New England, especially the Salem witch trials that occurred during 1692 and 1693. It turns out that many things we thought we knew about witches are not accurate. It is true that most of the people accused were women but they were not necessarily the oldest women around or the poorest. What they had in common was that they were past child-bearing age. That was the crucial thing. Also, most of the women were either unmarried or widows. They did not have a husband to support them.

To understand what made some women particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, we have to look at the laws of inheritance that governed the economy of the Massachusetts colony at the time of the trials. Most workers in the colony depended on farmland to support them and their families. When a man died, it was important that his land was passed on to his children so the family fortune could be maintained. The normal pattern of inheritance was designed to keep farmland in the family.

Most men who owned farms and had families, started distributing land when the children got married. The oldest son generally got one-third of the property when he married. Younger sons received a smaller portion of land or money upon marriage. Daughters were given a settlement upon marriage, usually about half as much as the eldest son would receive.

When a man of property died, his wealth was distributed in this way to unmarried children. His widow, however, was entitled to one-third of his property for her use for the rest of her life. This pattern kept widows from being a charge on the community while they lived. They could not, however, sell the property. It was only theirs for their lifetime. Upon their death, whatever was left was distributed to the remaining children.

It is important to remember that married women owned nothing at all. When a woman married, everything she owned became the property of her husband—even her clothes, her jewelry and her wedding ring. She did continue to have whatever dower her father had given her upon marriage. Her children or stepchildren could not take this money or property from her.

New England wife spinning

It is easy to see that this situation provided some motivation for children and stepchildren to hope the women who held the land did not continue to live on it and enjoy it for an unreasonable length of time. If that woman happened to be accused and punished for witchcraft, her hold on the property would disappear.

There is no way of knowing how many accusations against witches were made by people with an interest in her property, but it must have been a continuing temptation for some, especially younger sons who might have to wait for a young stepmother to die before they could receive some of their father’s land.

The history of witchcraft in America is a fascinating study that can help us understand why some of our ancestors acted the way they did. One book I highly recommend is The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol F. Karlson (Norton 1998). You will probably be able to find that in your local library or in bookstores.

Knowing the stories behind the way our ancestors lived helps us to understand the forces that have shaped our country and our attitudes even today. The persecution of witches may seem strange, but the more we know about how people of colonial times lived, the better we can understand the way they acted.

America’s First Female President? Edith Galt Wilson

A century ago, before American women were allowed to vote in presidential elections, one woman took the reins of presidential power and held them firmly for almost two years. Edith Galt Wilson had never been elected president, of course, but because of her position as Woodrow Wilson’s wife, some unfriendly commentators claimed that she had seized an illegitimate amount of power over her husband.  How did this happen? Well, 1919 was a very different world from the one we live in today, and Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was far more of a one-man operation than any recent presidencies have been.

Wilson, unlike most recent presidents, had not been engaged in national politics before he became president. He had started his career as a college teacher, a very popular teacher, who moved up through the ranks to become president of Princeton University and later the governor of New Jersey. When he was elected President in 1914, he moved to Washington, but did not move into the active society of political circles. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, was shy and very family oriented. She preferred quiet family life to mixing in Washington society,  and not many people were invited to the White House. Shortly after Wilson’s first election to the presidency, she became seriously ill with Bright’s disease. During her illness, she and the President became even more isolated. When she died in 1914, she left behind a a bereft President and three daughters.

Edith and Woodrow Wilson

Wilson accomplished a great deal during his first term in office. He introduced the graduated income tax, which put government finances on a much firmer basis than it had ever had. Unfortunately, he also segregated government agencies, a destructive move that lessened the status and weakened the financial position of Negroes for generations to come.

Wilson’s personal life was not happy after the death of his first wife. He worked hard but had few friends and became very isolated. Friends tried to introduce him to other women and in 1915 he met and was attracted to Edith Bolling Galt, a young widow from Virginia. She had grown up in an elite family with deep roots in the South. One of her ancestors was Pocahontas, who had married John Rolfe, one of the earliest colonists in Virginia. Edith was one of eleven children and had been given most of her education at home. Her father believed that education money should be spent on sons, but he provided a large library and Edith’s grandmother tutored her and her sisters.

Wilson and Edith were attracted to each other and he persuaded her to become engaged, but they decided not to get married until more time had passed since the death of his first wife. They were married in a small ceremony at home in 1915. 

The major issue that dominated Wilson’s later years in the White House was the war in Europe. During his first term in office, Wilson pledged to keep America out of the European war. He won a narrow election victory in 1916, but the following year Germany’s introduction of submarine warfare led him to request Congress to declare war. In April 1917, Congress voted to support the war. A draft was initiated and thousands of Americans went to fight in the war.

Wilson was a firm opponent of war and his major preoccupation as World War I drew to a close was to ensure that another European war would never occur. In 1919, he and Edith attended the Paris Peace Conference where Wilson worked hard to draft plans for a League of Nations. Unfortunately, he worked mostly alone, with help from other Democrats, but without involving any of the many Republicans who wanted to participate in postwar planning.

After Wilson had completed his draft proposal, he returned to the United States to urge the Senate to sign his plan. That was when disaster struck. In October 1919, Wilson suffered a serious stroke that left him partially paralyzed. It was then that his wife became an active participant in protecting her husband and concealing the extent of his illness. With the support of his doctor, Edith demanded that all communication with the President must be approved by her.

Rejection of League of Nations

For the next year and a half until his presidency ended, Edith Wilson controlled her husband’s life. She examined all letters and other communications addressed to him and decided which he should see. She ruled on who could visit the President and how long they could occupy his time. Even the Vice President, who had never been active in the administration, was not allowed to see him. Wilson was reluctant to have any changes made in the peace plan that he had developed and Republican Senators were unable to see or to influence him. In the end, the Senate did not approve Wilson’s Peace Plan and America did not become a member of the League of Nations.

Ever since this bitter ending to Wilson’s term as President, historians have argued about how influential Edith Galt Wilson was in his life. During Wilson’s last year in office, several opponents accused Edith of trying to seize power and take over his role. Others supported her in her claims to have been only a loving wife trying to protect her husband.

If you want to learn more about the dramatic events of Wilson’s last years, you might want to read Gene Smith’s When the When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (2016). The details of the struggle are fascinating, although none of us will ever know the full story of what happened during those hectic postwar years. That is why history is so fascinating—very few accounts can tell the true inside story of other people’s lives.     

A Foreign Queen for England—Charlotte II

If you watch news on TV these days, you can scarcely miss seeing pictures of crowds in London paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. Her funeral on September 19 has attracted the attention of many people in Europe and beyond. She served as queen of England for seventy years before dying this month at the age of 96. Pictures of the preparations for her funeral and speeches of tribute have been broadcast around the world. Her funeral on September 19 will be marked by an outpouring of love and respect from celebrities as well as ordinary people.

More than 200 years ago, in 1818, England was mourning the death of another queen, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. Queen Charlotte was not a monarch, as Elizabeth was, but she was England’s longest serving female consort. (The only royal consort who served longer than she did was Prince Phillip, who was consort to Queen Elizabeth II for almost seventy years until he died in 2021.) 

Charlotte was born in 1744 in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a small duchy in Germany. When George III of England inherited the British throne in 1760, his advisors recognized that he needed a queen, so they looked around Europe for suitable royal wives. Charlotte was an obvious choice. She was the right age and came from a royal family. Like most women of the time, she had been given very little education and was unlikely to question anything the king or his advisors might choose to do. So Charlotte was quickly sent off to England with only a few servants and attendants. She had a difficult voyage through stormy weather, and the wedding took place less than six hour after she had arrived in England.

Queen Charlotte and two of her children.

The king and his new queen must have had a difficult time getting to know one another. King George spoke no German, and Charlotte no English, but they did share a love of music. Somehow they seem to have achieved a reasonable relationship. Charlotte worked hard at learning English, although, according to reports, she always spoke with an accent. She and King George III had 15 children and 13 of them survived to grow up. That was quite an achievement for the time when so many children died in infancy.

The king, unfortunately, was not as healthy as his children were. During the first years of their marriage, everything went well. King George III spent a good deal of his time negotiating with England’s far-flung colonies. Charlotte’s name is memorialized in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as in several cities, bays and other places in Canada and New Zealand. She introduced the tradition of Christmas trees to England and supported the expansion of Kew Gardens.

King George III, however, developed mental problems as he grew older and was forced to step back from his royal duties. Charlotte was overwhelmed by the illness of the king. The novelist, Fanny Burney, who served as one of the queen’s attendants described her reaction to the news of his serious attack in 1788. “My poor Royal mistress! Never can I forget her countenance—pale, ghastly pale she looked; …her whole frame was disordered, yet she was still and quiet.”  

The king’s mental problems grew worse as he became older. Eventually his two oldest sons served as regents. Charlotte remained a supportive wife and mother. She continued to act as hostess at palace events during the regency of her sons, but her relationship with her husband was difficult. By the time she died in 1818, it is unlikely that the king was able to understand that she was gone. He died a little more than a year later.

Although much of Charlotte’s legacy has been forgotten over the years, she had a lasting influence on English royalty. Two of her sons became kings  of England—George IV and William the IV. Another son was the grandfather of Queen Victoria, another long-serving queen.

And questions about her legacy continue to come up. In recent years, a few articles have raised the issue of Charlotte’s racial heritage. Several writers have suggested that she had African ancestry. This idea is based mainly on pictures of Charlotte and on some accounts  of her written by people who claim she looked like a mulatto. Very few historians accept this idea of African ancestry and, of course there is no way of going back to find evidence one way or the other about her DNA. But people can continue raising questions about Charlotte’s ancestors. We’ll never know for sure. That is what makes history so fascinating—there are seldom permanent answers. We continue to read and study evidence, but final truth remains an elusive goal.

The Fire that Changed How America Lives—Frances Perkins

Most Americans spend Labor Day weekend shopping or having picnics with their families. We don’t often think about what we are celebrating. Labor Day doesn’t mark the end of a war or the birth of a famous man. Instead, it celebrates a revolution for the average person. The biggest changes in American life have come about not through wars and heroics, but through the ways that the lives of average workers have been changed. And the woman who played a major role in bringing about this major change in people’s lives is seldom mentioned today—Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1887 into a prosperous family, but she spent most of her life in New York and Washington D.C. Like many women of her time, she was given a good education but was not expected to use her education in a job or career. Her destiny, as her family saw it, was to marry a prosperous husband and raise children to follow the same path as her mother and aunts. But Frances saw life differently.

Frances Perkins

During the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, America was becoming a business powerhouse. Farming was no longer the only option for young people growing up. Manufacturing, mining, and trade developed requiring an increasing number of workers. Also during these years, there were few job opportunities for working class people in Europe, so many of them fled to America to find peace and security in which to raise their families.

Employers were able to hire workers for a few dollars a week and require them to work for ten or twelve hours a day six days a week. Most immigrant families could not survive on the wages of one person, so children were sent to work as young as seven or eight years of age. Jacob Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, revealed to many middle-class people the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Frances Perkins read Riis’s book and was inspired to move to the city to see what could be done to improve conditions.

After Perkins moved away from New England, she became a social worker in Philadelphia and New York, but a dramatic fire in 1911 changed the course of her life. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which caused the death of 146 workers, occurred in her neighborhood. It opened her eyes to the overwhelming unfairness of the problems faced by workers. She began to realize she could do more through politics than she could through providing care to individuals as a social worker.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 1911

Perkins began working in New York with a government committee to ensure fire safety. Working with politicians meant mingling with men who were unused to seeing women as anything other than wives and mothers. During this period of her life, Frances realized that the men she worked with were uncomfortable confronting a young, well-dress woman and did not know how to treat her. The solution Frances found was to try to appear older than she was, to wear somewhat dowdy clothes, and to project a motherly image. This was her way of not frightening off her male colleagues and she became famous for looking like someone’s wife rather than a politician.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he was aware of work Perkins had been doing in New York and appointed her the Secretary of Labor in in Cabinet. She was the first woman ever to serve in such a position and she served for twelve years, becoming the longest-serving cabinet member.

Frances Perkins was responsible for some of the major achievements of the New Deal—including the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. She tried to introduce healthcare as a benefit for all workers, but the American Medical Association killed that provision.     

Social Security is probably Frances Perkins’ most lasting achievement. Today about half of people over 65 get fifty percent of their income from Social Security and 25 percent  get ninety percent of their income from that program. Some Republicans have tried over the years to end the Social Security program, but it has made such a lasting impact on American society that it is unlikely that it will end.

Behind the scenes of her political life, Frances Perkins led a difficult personal life. Her husband, an engineer, became mentally ill and had to be cared for or institutionalized for many years. Frances Perkins tried to keep her private life very separate from her public service in government, but her biography by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (2009) fills out the picture of this fascinating woman. She deserves a thank-you from all the Americans who benefit from the programs she supported.