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Famous & Historical Women™: Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Famous & Historical Women™ is a series of occasional pieces celebrating women’s histories and Women’s History Month from a woman’s perspective.

After the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and her family came to live right here in Mandarin, Fla.

Well, maybe it’s fairer to say that they wintered here from the 1870s through the 1880s.

Northeast Florida was a haven for those tired of cold winters and reminders of war – carpetbaggers, rich out-of-staters – like Henry Flagler, John Jacob Astor and the Colgate-Palmolives – and other tourists.

Miss Harriet Elisabeth Beecher

A Connecticut Yankee, Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield on June 14, 1811, the seventh of 13 children.

It’s not at all surprising that she espoused a deep Christian faith, born as she was to outspoken Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher and Renaissance woman Roxana Foote.

The leader of the Second Great Awakening, Lyman Beecher was the 19th-century equivalent of a rock star by 1820 when he began preaching anti-slavery sermons in response to the Missouri Compromise.

Father’s national fame was not at lost on his children, all of whom were expected to educate themselves and achieve much.

Because her sisters were teachers who founded their own schools, Stowe was educated in the classical manner of her brothers and had an especial affinity for languages, science and mathematics.

That coupled with her keen and curious intellect, opportunities to travel not only around the United States but abroad, her brothers’ vocation as Congregationalist ministers, as well as the family’s strong abolitionist bent, put her at the forefront of public attention and under scrutiny from a very early age.

A generation of rock stars

A quick glance at the bibliography of Stowe’s work doesn’t exactly tag her as a firebrand abolitionist.

An encyclopedic thinker and very married woman with seven children of her own, Stowe’s 30 books include collections of her own poetry, journalism, short fiction, children's text books, advice books on homemaking and child-rearing, biographies and religious studies.

By the time she published ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in 1852, she was both widely known and well regarded.

From the outset, Stowe insisted that ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was not abolitionist propaganda or an indictment of the South, even at her 1862 meeting at the White House with President Abraham Lincoln.

Whether she was politicking or just telling her truth, the novel, based on actual cases of slave ownership reported in mostly northern newspapers, is still regarded as master work and provides one extant of the only historically accurate portraits of slavery.

Now very, very famous in her own right, Stowe spoke to the world from her bully pulpit as both a voice of authority and a target of bigotry – and not just because she was female.

Scandals & the Right Reverends Charles Beecher & Henry Ward Beecher

At the same time, two of her brothers – ministers Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Beecher – also achieved celebrity status with their abolitionist preaching.

Little brother Charles, whose religious beliefs extended to mysticism and spirituality that challenged the orthodoxy of the Congregational church, was tried for heresy in 1863 in Georgetown, Mass.

Not only tried by found guilty.

The conviction split his congregation up the middle, although he was allowed to remain as pastor and later was elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1864.

And though his conviction was later overturned, the turmoil disturbed his sister Harriet greatly.

But not perhaps as much as the scandal surrounding her next younger brother Henry Ward Beecher.

Brother Henry used his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, to stage, among other PR stunts, mock slave auctions where the congregation could purchase slaves’ freedom and ship crates of rifles stamped “Bibles” to anti-slavery to settles in Kansas and Nebraska following the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act.

Suffice it to say that he wowed the crowds.

As a boon, President Lincoln sent HWB to London during the Civil War to persuade Great Britain to remain neutral, which didn’t happen, and, at the close of the war, the honor of presenting a sermon at Fort Sumter, SC, when the US flags was once again raised, fell to him as well.

All this politicking made Henry Ward a ripe target for dirty tricks, even after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, as church politics are eternal.

Not surprisingly in 1872 he became embroiled in what was called the most notorious and hottest scandal of the century, when he was accused of adultery by controversial suffragette Victoria Woodhull, also a champion of free love.

The victim?

One Theodore Tilton, a member of Plymouth Church, co-editor of the Independent newspaper with the Rev. Beecher and a close friend.

Three years later, Tilton sued Beecher for alienation of affection from his wife Elizabeth during a trial that lasted six months.

Though Beecher regained his popularity and was allowed to remain with Plymouth Church, his notoriety split opinion among his congregation and his own family, not just in Brooklyn society at large.

Mandarin on the St. Johns

Tired of small town life in Massachusetts, in 1870 brother Charles and his wife Sarah moved to Newport, Fla., where Beecher worked in education and served as Florida's State Superintendent of Public Instruction for two years.

The climate agreed with him, and soon more Beecher Stowes headed south into the sun and out of the spotlight.

Enter Frederick William Stowe – bright, educated, a decorated war hero wounded at Gettysburg in 1863 and an alcoholic.

Mother Harriet hoped that Frederick William would heal and manage her recently purchased plantation of orange groves in Mandarin, but it was not to be, however, as both the plantation and “Fred” failed to produce.

Even still, she loved the area so much that she bought herself a home, and she and the family wintered here for 15 years.

And there were other reasons to come to Florida:

  • Both the Beechers and the Stowes held that building racial equality required both legislation and education.
  • So when baby brother Charles asked Harriet and husband Calvin to join him in the integrated school he built to teach emancipated adults, they, and Mandarin, agreed – beating the rest of the country to the punch by about 50 years.
  • And it’s warm here – no Connecticut frost or frost bite, no high winter fuel bills, cheap land and easy living.

Stowe compared Florida’s lovely soft weather to Italy, which she dearly loved and set about introducing the state to a much broader audience.

The result is ‘Palmetto Leaves,’ equal parts memoir, travelogue and investment prospectus for monied northerners.

Considered by literary critics one of Stowe’s minor works, ‘Palmetto Leaves’ is one of the first travel guides written about Florida and helped stimulate Florida's first boom of tourism and residential development in the 1880s.

First published in local newspapers as a series of letters and essays about living in Florida, the book features stories of the lives and customs of local African-Americans, the charm of the region and its generally moderate climate with warnings about "excessive heat” in summer months, the odd cold snap in winter and how to negotiate the “wilderness” that Florida still was.

Then there’s the Tiffany window

Though Stowe’s cottage is long since gone, the marker commemorating it is still across the street on the property of the Community Club in Mandarin.

It stands on the former site of the Church of Our Saviour, an Episcopal church founded in 1880 where locals gathered for Bible readings with Professor Calvin E. Stowe and his famous wife, which Hurricane Dora destroyed in 1964 by dropping a huge live oak through the roof.

With the church went the ‘Stowe Memorial Stained Glass Window,’ created by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Later, the congregation built a new church of similar design that remains an active parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Florida.

GJE

-30-

©2014 All rights reserved.

OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact: kt.4examiner@yahoo.com

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