History Writer Seeks
The Web is breaking up
I started with the obvious New Hampshire notables like President Franklin Pierce and statesman Daniel Webster. Plenty of Web links there, especially with Anthony Hopkins -- you've seen him recently as Hannibal Lecter, Richard Nixon, Titus Andronicus and Zorro -- about to play Webster in an upcoming film. The immediate problem in any politically correct New England history project is the overabundance of white guys, especially politicians and Revolutionary War heroes. The Web is heavy with references to John Stark, Josiah Bartlett, Matthew Thornton, Enoch Poore, John Langdon, even Meschech Weare. You may not know them all, but American history does.
My plan was to link a new historical NH personality to my site each week -- alternating boy, girl, boy, girl -- the way the teacher used to line us up for fire drills in grammar school. That is proving to be difficult. There are plenty of unsung women in the Granite State, but remember the Link Free or Die concept. Everyone has to be famous enough to show up in a search of the Internet. To make things even harder on myself, for the first 100 names, I'm sticking with deceased candidates. Historians, like morticians, prefer not to work with moving targets.
You're probably expecting me to say something cute here like -- I haven't had this much trouble finding women since I was dating in college. Not true. College was worse. Although I'm never going to hit the 50-50 goal, there will be more NH women in my Top 100 list than in any similar lists I've seen, thanks to the democratic nature of the Web. Not many are war heroes and none signed the Declaration of Independence, but these women represent a great range of human endeavor.
Historical data used to come from big fat textbooks put out by big fat textbook companies that got their data from big fat encyclopedias, that mostly played it safe. But the Web, dynamic and fearless, is fed from millions of sources. Everybody and her sister is putting content online. My mission here is merely to tap it.
With the exception of heroic NH names like Molly Stark and astronaut Christa McAuliff, the search for famous women takes us down roads less traveled. Their names are often associated with the arts -- poet Celia Thaxter, photographer Lotte Jacobi, Peyton Place author Grace Metalious, even Sarah Josepha Hale, best known as the author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." How about Mary Baker Eddy, the first Christian Scientist, or the last surviving members of the New Hampshire Shaker religion -- Gertrude Soule, Bertha Lindsay and Ethel Hudson?
So I spent much of Women's History Month clicking through hundreds of potential links. Sometimes the pickings were slim. Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau, for example, was a great American painter born in Exeter in 1837. She ran off to join the art scene in Paris, but was told no women were allowed. With permission of the French police, she enrolled in an all-male art school disguised in male clothing. Her professor unmasked, then fell in love with her, but they remained unmarried until she was 59 and he was 71. My favorite search engine, Google, appeared brimming with Bouguereau links. But alas, most web pages simply reproduce the same classic Bouguereau painting, "In the Woods" from 1899. But I'm still searching.
Other times, I hit the motherlode. I was only vaguely aware of Amy Marcy Cheney Beach, the Henniker child prodigy who became a distinguished American composer. Born at the close of the Civil War, Beach is today a hot Internet property. Through the magic of Real Audio, she can be heard and seen on more than a dozen web sites that feature her piano pieces, sacred music, choral and orchestral work. All that research was accomplished in the time it used to take to gas up the car, head to the library, and dig through the card catalog. All that research and I never left my room.
Behind every great man, as the saying goes, is a greater woman. Wherever possible, I plan to pair famous men with famous spouses. Josiah Bartlett, a Declaration signer, kept up a constant interchange of letters with his wife Mary Bartlett of Kingston. Her domestic vision of the Revolution, for my money, is the more fascinating. Mary Hilton Wentworth, young wife of aging British Governor Benning, is famous in her own right, as a subject of a poem by Longfellow. Frances Wentworth, driven from Portsmouth with her husband John, the state's last royal governor is the focus of Kenneth Roberts's novel "The Governor's Lady." And where is the monument to Amias Thompson, wife of NH founder David Thompson, who arrived here shortly after 1623 and survived her husband by 30 years? How could she leave her daughter in England, never to see her again? It's the stories, always the stories, that fascinate me.
All too often, famous women are famous victims, like Christine Otis Baker. Kidnapped by Indians as a baby, she returned to Dover in her 40s and ran her own business here. Goodwife Cole of Hampton is well represented online, but primarily as NH's only condemned witch. There's Ruth Blay of Portsmouth, hanged wrongfully for the murder of her child. My favorite, Lucy Hale, was jilted by her fiancée John Wilkes Booth the same day he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes the victims fought back, like the controversial Hannah Duston with her ring of Indian scalps, or Ona Judge Staines who escaped to New Hampshire from slave owners George and Martha Washington. Harriet Donlevy and Sarah Bagley battled for the rights of millworkers. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a famous labor organizer during World War II.
Fame, like the joke-store candles on your birthday cake, can flame and flicker, and flame again. Through the Internet, we can manufacture fame simply by paying attention. I once wrote a column here about Betty Hill, our famous NH alien abductee. Within weeks, that article had been abducted and reproduced on no less than a dozen UFO web sites. The longer you talk about someone, the longer they remain famous. White male war heroes, explorers, politicians, businessmen, writers, artists and scientists dominate American history. Nothing succeeds like success, I suppose, but nothing exceeds like excess too.
I stole my initial list of famous NH women from Olive Tardiff, an Exeter librarian and writer who published a slim paperback volume 20 years ago called "They Paved the Way." I got her okay to reprint some of her stories online, and now I'm hooked. I've been tweaking the list ever since.
So for the next couple of columns, at least, I will focus on New Hampshire women. Right now my favorites are the legendary Ocean Born Mary, and itinerant preacher Harriet Livermore. You may be surprised by their stories. You may be shocked. But, I promise, you won't be bored.
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Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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