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A DRAMA on SiriusXM’s “Radio Classics” introduced me to the Peabody sisters of 19th century Salem, Massachusetts. This remarkable trio, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia, left a legacy that would do any modern woman proud—at a time and place that was both intellectually flourishing and yet so stultifying.
The “Radio Classics” program, “I, Mary Peabody,” was a 1950 Cavalcade of America production (starring Elizabeth Taylor) based on the book The Peabody Sisters of Salem by Louise Hall Tharp. Both the program and book depict a brainy, albeit controlling, Elizabeth; a shy Mary; and a frail Sophia. These images were not misleading.
The sisters were raised by forward-thinking parents amidst New England’s Transcendentalism, a movement that stressed the inherent goodness of people and nature. The three received home education far beyond the norm for early 19th-century women.
Elizabeth was taught Latin, for instance, and eventually learned 10 other languages. She ran Boston’s West Street Bookstore out of her home, 1840 – 1852. Among its activities were regular Conversations organized by Margaret Fuller, an early advocate of women’s rights.
Such were the times, though, that Elizabeth had a falling out with Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May, of Little Women fame) when his book Conversations with Children on the Gospels mentioned that “love forms babies.” As noted at The Peabody Sisters website, such statements “today seem impossibly vague, but … at the time  represented the first example of anything like sexual education in the schools.”
The West Street Bookstore undertook the first publication, in 1849, of Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience, arguing that individuals should not permit governments to overrule their consciences.
Two Peabody marriages took place at the bookstore. In 1842, Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and children’s books (the first of which was published by the bookstore).
And, in 1843, Mary married Horace Mann, education reformer (honored by having schools named after him throughout the world). The pair traveled “west” to help establish Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1850. Mann was its first president.
Both sisters’ relationships reflected mid-19th century proprieties. It was not until their engagement that Mary felt comfortable calling her intended anything but Mr. Mann. Both Sophia (32) and Nathaniel (38) were considered old for marriage, and the day after their nuptials, he wrote to his sister, “We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point.”
Elizabeth never married. However, as noted at The Peabody Sisters website, she was “Ever eager to arrange her sisters’ lives.” Generally, this occurred with some cordiality.
Following Horace’s death in 1859, Elizabeth moved in with Mary and they opened a school together. In 1863, the two published Moral Culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide, encouraging the practices of German educator Friedrich Froebel. (Froebel frowned upon fear-based discipline in schools; he gained mention at this website’s “New England 1915.”)
Sophia, who was always frail, died in London at age 61 in 1871.
In their later years, Elizabeth and Mary continued their efforts fostering women’s suffrage, world peace and Native American rights. This last activity caught them up in a controversy concerning Sarah Winnemucca, whom the press described as Princess Winnemucca of the Paiutes. The Peabody sisters donated money toward her goal of building schools for the Paiute people.
According to The Peabody Sisters website, “After they supported Winnemucca for six years, the schools were only being started and the Princess was unable to account for expenditure of the funds.”
The Wikipedia entry for Sarah Winnemucca offers a different story: “The Peabody Indian School… operated for a couple of years” in Lovelock, Nevada. It adds that Winnemucca’s second husband, an Indian Department employee, was addicted to gambling and her earnings were eaten up by his needs.
The Peabody sisters were rather more successful in their other reforms. You go, grrls! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015