Portrait of a Mother: Eliza Clerc Makes Her Deafness Visible, 1822

Clerc Boardman Marriage Announcement

Their wedding in 1819 was perhaps the first of its kind in the United States: the union of deaf man and a deaf woman.

When Laurent Clerc agreed to travel to America in 1817 to help Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet learn sign language and establish a school for the deaf, he made it clear he would be returning to France in 1820. That changed when he met 23-year old Eliza Boardman, one of his first students at the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford. By 1818, they were betrothed.

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, 1822

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc, 1822. (From a photo by the author, Wadsworth Atheneum, 2014.)

The news of their engagement was not met with universal joy. Gallaudet himself opposed the match. Conventional wisdom held that the deaf should not intermarry. Eliza nor Laurent were not congenitally deaf, but most people of the era assumed that deaf parents would inevitably produce deaf children. There was also a question of logistics: how could a deaf mother ever tend to the needs of her children?

Quite well, as it turned out. Eliza and Laurent had six children, all born with normal hearing. The two were married for fifty years – just a normal, pleasant couple who happened to communicate through sign language.

In 1822, they both sat for their portraits with the great Charles Wilson Peale. Eliza could have easily chosen to let her deafness be invisible. Instead, she decided to immortalize her role as a deaf mother, her daughter Elizabeth on her lap, her right hand signing their shared initial.

This Is Not What A Feminist Looks Like

“Some idiot has drawn ladybits on the Queen Victoria statue on College Green.”

Bristol street artist “Vaj Graff” is behind the graffiti, which appeared on the 127-year old statue on 7 January. This isn’t the first time she’s “corrected” art and signage in the city, 120 miles west of London.

“Queen Vic was a power woman,” she told the Bristol Post. “She was the original feminist and she was proud. All I did was show her how she wanted to be seen. What’s so offensive about that?”

Here’s the problem: Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India was many things – as the title implies – but “original feminist” was not one of them. Not by any stretched, steampunked, anachronized definition of the word.

This is a woman that called the suffrage movement a “mad, wicked folly” and opined that one high-born suffrage woman “ought to get a good whipping.” While many in the women’s rights movement at the time held her up as an example of what a woman could be if given the opportunity, Victoria saw her role as female sovereign as “an anomaly” and more than a decade into her reign wrote that “I am every day more convinced that we women, if we are to be good women, feminine and amiable and domestic, are not fitted to reign.” She was fervent in her belief that she, like all women, needed to be guided by a strong man. Her extended mourning after the death of Prince Albert was both a genuine display of grief and a way to step out of her public duties.

Victoria took very little pleasure in any aspect of womanhood. Women, she once wrote, were “born for Man’s pleasure and amusement,” and that was that. A veteran of nine pregnancies, she came to hate the very sight of heavily pregnant woman, and continually compared pregnant and breastfeeding women to a variety of barnyard animals. She was appalled by social reformers who tried to educate woman on contraception, believing it encouraged immorality and prostitution. She rarely showed affection to her children, constantly finding fault with them while simultaneously demanding their complete loyalty to her needs.

And a woman who didn’t think other women should not train to be doctors or nurses because they’d have to look at genitalia would not let her bush fly on the Bristol green.

As graffiti goes, the addition of “ladybits” to the statue is funny, but also a bit sad. In the end, those parts of her anatomy didn’t make Queen Victoria feel strong or smart; they made her feel “feeble” and trapped. Like all queens, she knew the deal. Her body was only valuable for what came out of it: a male heir for the throne.

Was Lady Liberty Originally A Muslim?

“The Statue of Liberty was originally conceived as a Muslim peasant woman and was to have stood at the approach to the Suez Canal,” writes Michael Daly in The Daily Beast, “a lantern in her upraised hand serving as both lighthouse and a symbol of progress.”

The idea that our symbol of Liberty started as a Muslim is a powerful rhetorical tool in the fight to allow desperate Syrian refugees come to the United States and the decades-old debate over the so-called “clash of civilizations,” and Daly’s post has gone somewhat viral.

But is it historically accurate? That’s a little more complicated.

French artist and sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi did propose a plan to the Egyptian government in the late 1860s for Egypt (Progress) Carrying Her Light To Asia, a massive lighthouse in the form of an Egyptian peasant woman (fellah) to be placed at the head of the new Suez Canal. Egyptian leader Isma’il Pasha eventually dismissed the plan as too costly – although in reality it was probably more of a political decision –  and Bartholdi abandoned his lobbying efforts. He then began work on plans for Liberty Enlightening the World, which eventually became the Statue of Liberty.

Bartholdi's proposed Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia on the Suez Canal

Bartholdi’s proposed Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia on the Suez Canal

Bartholdi didn’t have a religious intent in either project, so in a sense, describing Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia as a “Muslim” woman is like describing Liberty Enlightening the World as a “Christian” woman – it’s based entirely on location, location, location. In this day and age, an Arab figure in an Arab country is going to be perceived as Muslim; a Western figure in New York Harbor is going to be perceived as Christian. But Bartholdi’s influences were ancient and classical: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Lighthouse of  Alexandria, the pyramids at Giza, Nubian and Assyrian statuary, Roman representations of Libertas.

Daly’s depiction of Bartholdi as instantly packing up and sailing to America “with drawings of the Muslim woman transformed to the personification of Liberty,”  is one Bartholdi himself hated. As the fundraising for Liberty dragged on, some commentators at the time noticed how close the projects were in scope and design. “It was this that made an evilly disposed newspapers say, and others repeat, that I had executed a colossal statue for Egypt, which had not been used, and that I had resold it to the Society of the French-American Union in order that from it might be made the Statue of Liberty,” he noted in a fundraising pamphlet he wrote in 1885. He had only produced sketches and models for the Egyptians, and the project had never gotten out of the planning stages. “At that time my Statue of Liberty did not exist, even in my imagination, and the only resemblance between the drawing that I submitted to the Khedive, and the statue now in New York’s beautiful harbor is that both held a light aloft,” he said in a newspaper interview.

It’s been argued over the years that Bartholdi was being less than honest in trying to put daylight between the two projects. Existing sketches of Egypt share many similarities to Liberty, and it’s clear from his archives that he didn’t start working on Liberty until Egypt was rejected.

However, an artist’s creative process is complex, particularly when an idea ebbs and flows over a period of decades. The idea for a colossal statue may have formed as early as 1855, when he first visited Egypt and saw wonders like the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza. (“These granite beings, in their imperturbable majesty, seem to be still listening to the most remote antiquity,” he once wrote. “Their kindly and impassible glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future.”) The idea for a colossal statue as a gift to the United States seems to have formed at a dinner party in 1865, two years before he began planning for the Suez Canal project. The concept and design process for both projects was deeply intertwined, but Bathroldi clearly thought of them as separate project – sisters, rather than duplicates.

Waiting To Become A Widow: Mary Brown and the Execution of John Brown

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Mary Day Brown and her companions Hector Tyndale and James and Sarah McKim left the Wager House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia for a walk at the start of what promised to be another long and trying day.

They had barely started out when a gunshot cut the air; Tyndale felt a bullet brush by his head.

Whether this was a serious attack or a prank by some over-excited local was not something worth contemplating. They turned around and returned to the hotel, where they spent the rest of the morning in seclusion, hands clasped “eyes streaming, hearts uplifted in prayer, waiting for the hour to strike.”

John Brown Farm, North Elba, New York.

John Brown Farm, North Elba, New York.

Mary Brown’s ordeal had weeks before when news reached their home in North Elba, New York that her husband’s attempt to seize the Federal armory in Harpers Ferry and spark a slave revolution had gone fatally wrong. Confirmation came in the form of a New York Times dispatch, read aloud by one of her children, after a long and sleepless night in late October.

“There was very little weeping or wailing or loud demonstration on the part of our broken household,” daughter Annie Brown later recalled. “We were most of us struck dumb, horror stricken with a greif too deep and hard to find expression in words or even tears.” Brown had always spoken of the potential that he might fall in service to the antislavery cause, said another daughter “but I did not think failure possible.”

Not only was her husband wounded and sure to face death for his efforts, her sons Watson and Oliver had died by his side. A stepson, Owen, had escaped, his whereabouts unknown. Also dead were William and Dauphin Thompson, the brothers-in-law of two of her surviving children.

Mary had given her husband 13 children since their marriage in 1833. Disease and accident had taken seven of them while young. After October 18, 1859, only four remained.

Within a few days of the news, Mary was convinced to travel south by the Reverend Thomas W. Higginson, a noted abolitionist and one of John Brown’s greatest champions. Along with several other prominent Northern men, Higginson believed Brown might still be rescued from the gallows, and he convinced Mary that her presence might convince the prisoner to fight on. She left North Elba on November 2, her path eased by abolitionist supporters eager to help Brown’s cause.

In Charlestown, Brown panicked. Mary’s health was often fragile, and even with assistance the trip could cost money the family did not have. “Mr Brown says ‘for God’s sake don’t let Mrs. Brown come,” his lawyer wired to Boston, too late to stop her. “If my Wife were to come here just now,” he wrote to Higginson on November 4, “it would only tend to distract her mind, Ten fold; & would only add to my affliction; & cannot possibly do me any good…I beg of her to be calm, & submissive; & not go wild on my account.”

“In regard to your coming here; If you feel sure that you can endure the trials and the shock, which will be unavoidable (if you come), I should be most glad to see you once more; but when I think of your being insulted on the road, and perhaps while here, and of only seeing your wretchedness made complete, I shrink from it. Your composure and fortitude of mind may be quite equal to it all; but I am in dreadful doubt of it,” he wrote her on November 16, as she waited in Philadelphia.

One he knew she was in Virginia, though, he was happy for her presence, saying “if you now feel that you are equal to the undertaking do exactly as you FEEL disposed to do about coming to see me before I suffer. I am entirely willing.”

His fears of her being “insulted,” were well-founded. When she was finally allowed to visit him at his jail in Charles Town the day before the execution, she had to pass through joyous crowds playing martial music in anticipation of the hanging. At the jail, she was strip-searched by the warden’s wife for fear she was carrying weapons or poison.

Husband and wife were allowed several hours together – not alone, but at least together. They talked about the family’s scant finances, about how Mary should raise their three surviving daughters, about the brutal deaths of Watson and Oliver. Watson’s body had been defiled by students from the local medical college and Oliver’s tossed in a mass grave with others killed in the raid. His request they and the Thompson boys be exhumed and cremated so she might take them all home had been denied, but he urged her to keep trying.

In the end, they were resigned. While Mary didn’t play an active role in her husband’s activities, she was no less an abolitionist, and just as sure he that he was about to die for a just cause. “God bless you and the children,” he said as the warden allowed them a final embrace. “God have mercy on you,” she replied. Crying, she was led to a carriage and taken back to Harpers Ferry. She would not be allowed in Charles Town during the hanging. She never saw his face again.

For Further Reading: Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown In Virginia by Louis DeCaro Jr

A Line Through the Desert

Readers of the New-York Tribune learned on December 1, 1866 that “Matrimonial advices from Utah state that Mr. Brigham Young has just taken a forty-fifth wide: the actual number of his family not being increased, as No. 23 died the other day.”

The story was incorrect. He had married Amelia Folsom in January 1863 and wouldn’t again until he took Mary Van Cott as a wife in January 1868. Many historians sorting through the muddle of Young’s matrimonial history count them as his 50th and 51st spouses. His 45th marriage, to Elizabeth Burgess, had taken place in October 1852. The death of his 23rd recorded wife, Olive Andrews, is unclear.

Utah’s isolation made these erroneous stories about her inhabitants all too easy to spread. But as New Yorkers read about “No. Forty-Five” in the Tribune that lazy Saturday, the territory was taking a leap forward into the mainstream of American life. December 1, 1866 was the first day of operation for the Deseret Telegraph Company, the nation’s first co-operatively owned telegraph line in the United States.

Brigham Young was something of an evangelist for telegraphs, having eagerly joined the push for a transcontinental line in the 1850s and early 1860s. Utah was a major link in the chain, with Salt Lake City serving the juncture of the eastbound and westbound lines. Young himself had been given the honor of sending the first telegraph from Salt Lake City to California in October 1861, concluding “Join your wires with the Russian Empire, and we will converse with Europe.”

In his mind, the next step was a territorial line, linking the Mormon settlements across Utah to Salt Lake and Salt Lake to the transcontinental line. In November 1865, Young sent a circular to the Bishops and Elders of wards across the territory saying “the proper time has arrived for us to take the necessary steps” to build a the line, arguing “we should bring into requisition every improvement with our age affords, to facilitate our intercourse and to render our intercommunication more easily.”

Each ward was instructed: “From settlement to settlement let the men of judgment select and mark the route for the Line to run, so has to have it as straight as possible and yet convenient to the road,” with 22-foot tall poles buried 4 feet deep, every 70 yards. Wire would be provided. Virtually the entire project was funded and managed by the Latter-Day Saints, with each community along the line pitching in the labor and material to get it done.

“Not a man on this line every worked a telegraph line before,” the project director later said, “the line was strung and put into operation in the middle of winter, it about five hundred miles in length; taking all into consideration, please permit me as an old operator to say that I think the working of the same almost a miracle.”

On December 1, 1866, Brigham Young sent the first telegraph to President Lorin Farr and Bishop Chancey West in Ogden, dedicating the line to the Lord God of Israel and “praying that this and all other improvements may contribute to our benefit, and the Glory of our God…” For the next 35 years, the slim Deseret line was the force that knit the Mormon world together and connected it to the world of the Gentiles.

Restored Deseret Telegraph Company office, Cove Fort, Utah. (Source: Wikipedia)

Restored Deseret Telegraph Company office, Cove Fort, Utah. (Source: Wikipedia)

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